In Geneva, another election

Big Pharma and Bush hacks are watching as the World Health Organization picks a new leader.

Published November 7, 2006 6:41PM (EST)

It's getting a little less press than the U.S. midterms, but there's another election going on this week, in Geneva. The U.N.'s World Health Organization is electing a new director-general to replace Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, who died in May.

After Monday's round of voting, the candidate list is down to five. Today, this shortlist is getting "grilled" before another round of voting determines the ultimate victor. The prize for winning: figuring out a way to best ensure global public health while at the same time avoiding U.S. efforts to influence policy according to the Bush administration's partisan agenda. (C'mon, you knew it wouldn't take more than two paragraphs to connect the two elections, didn't you?)

How the World Works has noted two previous efforts in the past year by the U.S. at manhandling WHO. In March, the U.S. reportedly forced the transfer of William Aldis, WHO's country representative in Thailand. Aldis had made the grave mistake of publicly criticizing a proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and Thailand on public health grounds. More recently, Bush administration hack William Steiger demanded that WHO retract a study it had commissioned on the impact of intellectual property on public health in developing countries.

In both cases, the U.S. was acting in the interests of the pharmaceutical lobby, and not the public health. And to be frank, we have zero confidence that a Democratic-controlled Congress (or White House, for that matter) would act any differently. Big Pharma is bigger than partisanship.

But the Bush administration has also worked hard to force the the U.N. and WHO to conform to the political dictates of the religious right in the U.S. As the Associated Press reports today, "The Bush administration has challenged ideologically charged WHO programs such as needle exchanges and condom distribution. Republican policies have had a "chilling"' effect on condom distribution in Africa, a WHO official who works on HIV/AIDS said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic."

And let's not even get started on how the Bush administration views funding for reproductive health programs that have any provision for abortion.

We don't get a vote on the new director-general at WHO. But how the U.S. votes today could make that person's job a lot easier.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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2006 Elections Globalization How The World Works Intellectual Property