CAMBRIDGE: Times are tough for the world's poorest countries. Always marginalized in the world economic system, these countries are facing even more neglect than usual. After a breakdown in diplomatic approaches, the rich world is busy dropping bombs on Serbia, at a cost of billions of dollars per month, and will no doubt devote billions more to cleaning up and fixing the damage from the bombs once a diplomatic settlement is made finally. Meanwhile, the poor countries are told that there is little left for them. Debt relief for the poorest of the poor is likely to continue at a grossly insufficient pace, even with new proposals that will be launched at the G-8 summit. And many of the key international institutions that could actually help the poor countries are seeing their budgets relentlessly cut.
A recent spectacle in Geneva was particularly egregious. The World Health Organization, the leading institution charged with protecting global public health, has made very important reforms in the past year under the new leadership of Dr. Gro Bruntland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister. On the basis of those reforms, and a new WHO agenda on global health, Dr. Bruntland made the extremely modest request that the core WHO budget from the donor countries should be raised sufficiently to absorb rising costs due to inflation and exchange rate changes. Yet even this modest request was rejected by donor governments. The WHO will continue to be squeezed for funds, while the urgency of its mission rises by the day.
This decision, promoted mainly by the United States, reflects the sad dereliction of U.S. leadership evident in so many parts of the world. The Clinton Administration has failed to pay U.S. back dues to the U.N., partly because of Republican opposition in the Senate, but partly because the Clinton administration simply hasn't been willing to champion worthy U.N. activities as a priority for the U.S. On the one side the U.S. presses for reforms at the U.N. agencies, but when they happen, as at the WHO, the reforms are met with U.S. calls for still more budget stringency.
The result is a continuing disaster for the poorest countries, where the burden of infectious disease is rising starkly, in diseases ranging from Malaria, to HIV/AIDs and Tuberculosis. But rich countries, including the U.S., should not kid themselves. Microbes do not respect national borders and do not wait for passport checks. The alarming rise in infectious diseases will burden the whole world, not just the poorest countries.