TCS Daily

Trading Away Good Health?

By Alan Oxley - June 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Pity Thai trade officials. They have their hands full with a very busy trade agenda that is being watched closely by their activist Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. As well as coping with acceleration of negotiations in the WTO Doha Round, they are negotiating Free Trade Agreements with the US, Japan and China and participating in ASEAN negotiations with China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India and managing bilateral trade agreements with Laos and Cambodia.

The last thing they need is other people expanding the trade agenda and certainly not with illiberal goals. But the Thai Ministry of Health seems to be doing just that.

Last month at the annual meeting of the WHO in Geneva, it spearheaded a drive to lock the World Health Organization (WHO) into the international trade agenda. The vehicle was a resolution endorsing a recommendation from the WHO secretariat to do this. Thai health officials have enough on their own plate -- the threat of an Avian bird flu spawning a global flu pandemic and managing HIV/Aids -- without such sideshows. Surely the WHO also has a big enough job to solve global health problems without getting into trade?

Evidently the WHO Secretariat does not think so. At its own initiative, it prepared a report for the Executive Board of the WHO warning that WTO trade agreements threaten public health services. They trotted out spurious claims anti-globalization NGOs manufactured several years ago that liberalization of trade in services in the WTO threatens public health services. A comprehensive report by the WTO debunking this was published several years at the instruction of the then WTO head, Mike Moore. It is still on the WTO website. And yet WHO health officials are now recycling these spurious claims.

The report engages in further scaremongering by claiming as well the WTO food safety standards are also a problem for health. The idea that international trade poses health risks is laughable. The report demonstrates this amply by allowing the idea that more freely traded goods might be international disease carriers. Trade promotes growth and increases wealth, enabling countries to tackle health problems. The only health risk is exposure of trade officials to viruses and flu from flying around the globe to attend trade meetings. Free flu shots for trade negotiators would be a good idea. But that would support the trade negotiations and the motive for the report is obviously the reverse.

Anti-globalization NGOs, like Oxfam, the Third World Network, Medecins sans Frontiers and Consumers International, have become so obsessed with the success of free trade and the WTO that they are pushing anti-free trade proposals in any available arena to generate activity to blunt the WTO's agenda.

Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, demonstrated what could be done when she was Director the UN Human Rights Commission. Under her leadership, UN staff prepared reports arguing trade liberalization hindered human rights. The case was that trade liberalization fostered free enterprise, undermining the capacity of public sector agencies to provide social security benefits. WTO agreements do no such thing. This was just anti-private sector propaganda. But she had an effect. Today, human rights groups now routinely complain trade liberalization hinders respect for human rights, citing those reports.

Does Dr. Lee Jong Wook, the head of the WHO, harbor similar ambitions? The report from his staff suggests national health ministries need units ("cells" would be a more accurate term) to propagate these anti-trade messages. It appears he has one in his own organization. The report would give it a mandate to foster similar activity in national health ministries.

Oxfam, Medecins sans Frontiers, Consumers International and the Third World Network are all running campaigns to swing the WHO into the anti-trade camp. They want it to weaken intellectual property rights that support research by drug companies to develop new drugs. What is the connection with the WTO? One of the leading agreements of the WTO is the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) which significantly strengthens international intellectual property law.

These NGOs have proposed that the WHO adopt an international treaty to establish an international research and development program where the UN would develop new drugs, instead of the drug companies. For good measure, the treaty obliges members to surrender intellectual property rights. This is zany. UN officials are not business executives. Developing drugs is very high risk business. The Iraqi oil for food program showed how the UN can go the wrong way when it comes to business. All this proposal would do is discourage investment in development of new drugs.

Are Thai health officials part of this anti-trade and anti-free market push? In Geneva, they endorsed the idea of the research and development treaty. This would seem at odds with the goal set by Prime Minister Thaksin to make Thailand the leading life science economy in Southeast Asia. He has encouraged private sector investment to support this.

The Thai proposal is unpopular. It has been deferred to a later WHO meeting. The wisest course would be for Thailand to withdraw it and for the Dr. Lee Jong Wook, the head of WHO to bury the report. He needs the support of the international community for important programs, like tackling HIV/Aids. Initiatives like this one make him and his organization look silly. Donors do not support silly organizations.

Alan Oxley is the host of the Asia Pacific page of Tech Central Station and a former Chairman of the GATT


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