Bill Gates vs. the WHO

Will the $60 billion Gates-Buffett colossus make the U.N.'s World Health Organization irrelevant?

Published June 27, 2006 10:17PM (EDT)

Reasons abound to look critically at the Gates Foundation, soon to be the biggest philanthropy in world history. It is not accountable to any government in its funding priorities. It provides conservatives with a convenient excuse to argue that government shouldn't spend money on education and public health, since the private sector is so obviously taking care of the problem. With its huge budget, the Gates Foundation dwarfs the spending power of the United Nations' World Health Organization, and that also makes some people nervous. It can't make sense for the world's premier multilateral decision-making body to cede power to the preferences of one man in Seattle. Can it?

But wait a minute. Let's take a closer look at that last question. In March, the WHO unexpectedly recalled the WHO country representative to Thailand, William Aldis, just 16 months into a job that usually lasts four years. What was his offense? According to a detailed investigative report published in the Asia Times two weeks ago, Aldis' sin was writing an opinion piece in a Thai newspaper that made the international pharmaceutical industry very angry. Specifically, reported the Asia Times, Aldis argued "that Thailand should carefully consider before surrendering its sovereign right to produce or import generic life-saving medicines as allowed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in exchange for a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States, which is currently under negotiation."

The United States' employment of bilateral free trade agreements to strengthen intellectual property restrictions beyond what has already been agreed to by the World Trade Organization has been a recurring theme in How the World Works. Aldis' editorial, "It Could Be a Matter of Life or Death," offers an excellent introduction to why this is a travesty for public health in the developing world. So excellent that it infuriated the United States government, which complained to (the recently deceased) WHO director general Lee Jong-wook. According to the Asia Times:

"A US ambassador to the UN in Geneva paid a private visit to Lee on March 23 to express Washington's displeasure with Aldis' newspaper commentary, according to WHO officials familiar with the meeting. A follow-up letter from the US government addressed to Lee strongly impressed Washington's view of the importance of the WHO to remain 'neutral and objective' and requested that Lee personally remind senior WHO officials of those commitments, according to a WHO staff member who reviewed the correspondence."

"The next day, Lee informed the regional office in New Delhi of his decision to recall Aldis."

But what does all this have to do with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett?

The Aldis incident is just one of many examples that can be cited to demonstrate how corporate interests influence the actions of the WHO, and every other international multilateral, decision-making body that deals with intellectual property. Nowhere is this more painfully clear than in the arena of public health.

Developing nations want access to cheap generics because their citizens can't afford first-world drug prices. They also want biotech companies to pay when they patent genetic codes of plants or animals that are indigenous to their territory. They want research and development directed toward diseases that afflict their citizens. They are constantly making their case at an endless string of international conferences empowered to come up with resolutions and studies and action plans on these issues.

And at every step of the way, their efforts are contested by well-funded delegations representing multinational corporations that fight a brutal war of attrition that aims to water down every resolution, delay every action, and co-opt every opponent. The interest of these delegations is never in doing what's best for public health, but in doing what's best for corporate profit.

It is the natural right of corporations to fight for their own interests. But when the U.S. government becomes their water carrier, then what ends up happening is that international bodies like the U.N.'s WHO become crippled. They are no longer able to advocate for what is in the public interest. They are blocked at every turn.

In a highly ironic historical development, Bill Gates, who has been advocating for tougher intellectual property laws since he was a teenager, has created an institution, the Gates Foundation, that may actually offer a counterposing force to the self-interested motives of Big Pharma. The goal of the Gates Foundation is not to strengthen I.P. laws, but to heal and educate people. The Gates Foundation funds research and development into alternative methods for creating and delivering drugs that will address the needs of the people who are suffering the most.

We must naturally guard against getting too carried away. The Gates Foundation is not to be seen as a replacement for Big Pharma, or some kind of information-wants-to-be-free crusader. Most likely, it will look for ways to work with the system, not to destroy it. But its goals are different, and its hands can't be tied by what the CEO of Pfizer or the U.S. trade representative declares.

This is a good thing. Would it be better if the U.S government were a more aggressive force for public health in the developing world and the United Nations could operate free of the lobbying power of transnational corporations? Of course it would. But that's not the world we've got. Right now, we may be a lot better off with the Gates Foundation having $60 billion to play around with than with the United Nations' getting its hands on the money, and then not being able to spend it because corporate "stakeholders" are throwing up roadblocks at every step. And maybe, just maybe, if the Gates Foundation is successful in making a dent in the horrific conditions that keep billions of people locked in abject suffering, the example so set will provide a countervailing force to corporate influence on organizations like the WHO. By showing what's possible, it could reinvigorate government, instead of making it irrelevant.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Intellectual Property