Not so pro-Bono

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times about the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals by rock singer Bono (yes, you read that right) was naive and misguided.  The minimal successes at improving the health and wealth of the poor he cited have been vastly overshadowed by negative policies and actions by UN agencies.

Underlying the U.N.’s deficiencies is the inability of its leaders to apprehend how their own flawed policies prevent the achievement of their ambitious Millennium Development Goals for 2015, which include cutting hunger and poverty in half, giving all children a basic education, reducing infant and maternal mortality by two-thirds and three-quarters respectively, and reversing the spread of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.  Chemicals regulation and water policy offer just two examples, among many.

Since the cheap and effective insecticide DDT was effectively banned worldwide at the UN-sponsored 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue have been on the rise.  In fact, the huge toll of diseases spread by mosquitoes caused some public health officials to rethink DDT’s use.  In 2006, after some 50 million preventable deaths, the U.N.’s World Health Organization reversed course and endorsed the use of DDT to kill and repel malaria-causing mosquitoes.  At the time, Arata Kochi, the World Health Organization official in charge of malaria said, “We must take a position based on the science and the data.  One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual spraying.  Of the dozen or so insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT.”

But policies based on science and data enjoy a short half-life at the United Nations, and last year, with a notable absence of fanfare, WHO reverted to endorsing less effective methods for preventing malaria.  In May 2009 the WHO and the UN Environment Program announced that their goal is “to achieve a 30 percent cut in the application of DDT worldwide by 2014 and its total phase-out by the early 2020s, if not sooner.”

As incompetent and anti-social as the UN has been on DDT, it is really drowning when it comes to water issues.  Water is in increasingly limited supply in many parts of the world.  Shortages make irrigation of crops difficult or impossible and hinder economic development; excessive water extraction lowers ground levels and exacerbates rising sea levels; and poor water quality makes populations vulnerable to water-related diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, viral hepatitis A and typhoid.  Some 1.1 billion people still lack access to an adequate supply of drinking water and some 2.6 billion do not have basic sanitation.

Ironically, UN policies and programs themselves prevent the development and use of important tools that could help to conserve water, especially in poorer regions of the world.