UN decisions must be open to public debate

Published: Tuesday 15 June 1993

IT IS SAD that the World Health Assembly did not accept the suggestion of AIDS campaigner Jonathan Mann, that the candidate for the director-generalship of the World Health Organisation take part in a globally broadcast debate on health issues. Mann, a candidate himself, was interested, of course, in pursuing his campaign against Hiroshi Nakajima, who went on to be re-elected to a five-year term as WHO's director general by the organisation's multinational assembly.

Normally, the vote would have gone without a murmur. But Nakajima's candidacy has been marred by a plethora of allegations. Mann, who was in charge of WHO's AIDS programme, was the first senior officer to leave the organisation after Nakajima took over -- in protest against his chief allegedly downgrading AIDS support and against his personal management style. Subsequently, Mann was appointed director of the International AIDS Centre at Harvard School of Public Health.

Mann's motives apart, the idea of a public debate is good, and not only for the top WHO job but for all the chieftaincies of UN agencies. These agencies are immensely powerful, with large sums of money to dispense and able to influence -- and at times even formulate and direct -- national policies. These agencies and the World Bank virtually run several governments, yet the men and occasional women who run them are often known only to "insiders". Their skills and political orientation are relatively unknown before they assume powerful posts. Many appointments are made on the basis of geographic origin and some even border on coercion, with the veiled warning being, "If our man doesn't get the job, funding for the organisation may be jeopardised."

Hence, a public debate would not only generate interest in the various issues involved, but would also bring them more into the open. After all, the WHO constitution states that "informed opinion and active cooperation on the part of the public are of the utmost importance (for) the health of the people." This principle applies to other UN agencies, too. So, discussions about their role and their operations would spur debate about developments all over the world. For example, it would have been fascinating and useful to have heard a major public discussion about global environmental priorities in advance of the recent appointment of a successor to Mostafa Tolba to head the UN Environment Programme.

In any case, the UN has been getting a bad press recently, with Gulf War manipulations, incompetent relief measures in Somalia, a political botch-up in Angola, failing to curb the butchery in former Yugoslavia, and the decision of Javier Perez de Cuellar to become the first former UN secretary general to take a job in a private company. The job he has taken has Moroccan connections, recalling that almost his last act in UN office was to make a contentious decision in Morocco's favour on the referendum in former Spanish Sahara.

An open debate on such issues of universal importance as health would be a positive way of improving the image of the world body -- if not its actual performance.

Governments, of course, will resist the concept of open debate, in line with their resistance to all efforts to increase public participation. Governments prefer the easier option of making decisions behind closed doors.

The same argument should apply to the World Bank "family" because public debate among candidates for senior jobs would prise open the bank's doors to greater scrutiny and accountability. Industrialised countries who press incessantly for "good governance", democracy and open debate, should support this idea. Instead, they seem to exempt from their democratic ideals the influential international organisations they control.

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