The World Health Organization, a part of the United Nations, has proposed an official name, COVID-19, for the illness caused by the Wuhan coronavirus, after the city in China where it emerged. (The new designation stands for coronavirus disease 2019, as the illness was first detected toward the end of last year.)
The director-general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noted that the name was chosen “to avoid stigma”—or as the woke might say, microaggressions—thus, the new name makes no reference to any of the people, places, or animals associated with the coronavirus.
Simultaneously, a working group of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses announced it would recommend the virus itself be called SARS-CoV2, because of its relatedness to the coronavirus that emerged in 2002 and caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Asked about the new names, U.S. Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield, an HIV expert who is familiar with the early controversies over the naming of that disease, said he believed the new WHO nomenclature is unlikely to catch on.
WHO often fails at far more consequential tasks, too. Its polio eradication policy in Syria allowed it to work only with the brutal, corrupt regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but not in rebel-held areas. Thus, although WHO was effective in containing polio within government territory, the disease was able to spread throughout rebel areas. The organization also has been widely condemned for failing to raise the alarm about the dangers of Ebola in West Africa in 2014.
This sort of political correctness and bumbling is what the United Nations and its agencies are known for, of course. John Bolton, the one-time U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once said about its headquarters: “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
Actually, it might make a lot of difference: It would be a significant improvement.
Although best-known for its peacekeeping in areas of conflict—where it enjoys a mixed record, at best—the U.N.’s agencies, commissions, and panels have a dismal record of accomplishment, especially while acting as the world’s regulator-wannabe for all manner of products, processes, and activities.
The U.N. regularly panders to activists and, not coincidentally, adopts policies that expand its own scope and responsibilities. Science, innovation, and free markets routinely get short shrift. In U.N. programs and projects, everything—even the naming of a new virus—becomes an exercise in public relations, politics, and international horse-trading.
Two respected commentators have called for the United States to cut funding for WHO and its International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is plagued by incompetence and poor science on its good days, and was at the epicenter of a major scandal marked by corruption and conflicts of interest.
The United States long has been a hugely disproportionate funder of U.N. activities—our mandatory assessment and voluntary contributions total some $8 billion—but the era of America as the U.N.’s sugar-daddy is waning. State Department staffers have been instructed to find significant cuts in U.S. funding for U.N. programs (above the mandatory assessment).
Why are incompetence and profligacy rife within the sprawling organization? In several respects, it’s in the U.N.’s DNA.
First, the United Nations is essentially a monopoly. Inefficiency and incompetence are not punished by “consumers” of their products or services. Recipients of U.N. largesse cannot spurn the U.N. and patronize a competitor. On the contrary, it is not uncommon in these kinds of bureaucracies for failure to be rewarded with additional resources. Unlike in business, if a program isn’t working, government bureaucrats clamor to make it bigger.
Second, U.N. officials are rewarded for making the bureaucratic machinery run—that is, for producing reports, guidelines, white papers and agreements, and for holding meetings—whether or not they are any good or make any sense. And they often don’t make sense as the bureaucrats often sacrifice veracity for consensus—sort of like letting eight-year-olds vote on whether they want to call a whale a fish or a mammal.
Third, there’s no accountability—no U.S. Government Accountability Office, House of Lords Select Committee, or parliamentary oversight, and no electorate to kick the U.N. reprobates out when they are dishonest or act contrary to the public interest. It’s hardly surprising, then, that we see egregious examples of arrogance and corruption, let alone day to day featherbedding, laziness, and incompetence in the thousands of individual U.N. programs and projects.
Fourth, in the absence of accountability, U.N. officials feel little need for transparency in their policymaking; and the PR offices simply spin, spin, spin the anti-technology, anti-capitalist party line, which often fails to appreciate that scientific progress and modernity give rise to greater prosperity and longevity.
Fifth, the pool of possible candidates for U.N. leadership positions is not a promising one. The organization is no meritocracy: The country or region of origin of a candidate seems to be more important than his credentials and qualifications.
Also, if you were a head of state or a government minister, would you choose to send your best people to the U.N., or would you prefer to keep them close, to make you look good and to benefit your country? It’s hardly surprising that the U.N. ends up with the least competent and most disaffected and dysfunctional officials.
Short of abolishing it and starting from scratch, it’s difficult to imagine how the U.N. could be fixed, so U.S. discretionary contributions should go only to programs that are consistent with America’s interests and values. We should also withhold funding and participation from U.N. agencies and programs that are found to be corrupt or incompetent. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be able to get rid of more than 10 floors of the U.N.’s headquarters.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.