President Reagan once quipped that sometimes in his administration, “the right hand doesn’t know what the far-right hand is doing.” The United Nations these days possesses two left thumbs, most concretely when it addresses nutrition. The U.N.’s World Health Organization strives both to shrink and expand waistlines across the globe. And even as WHO bureaucrats furiously add and subtract calories, millions of third worlders succumb to diseases that industrialized nations vanquished decades ago.
WHO wants to drive obesity from Earth. In a recent draft document, the agency advocated taxes and marketing restrictions on sugar-rich foods to stamp out “globesity.” WHO also claims that worldwide, 22 million children under age five are overweight or obese.
But its own website shows that WHO believes children are too thin as well as too fat.
Fully 60 percent of all deaths of children under age five were associated with undernutrition in 1999, WHO reports. An online report on infectious disease explains that various ailments “often in combination with malnutrition” annually kill five million kids between birth and five years. Jacques Diouf, director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, wisely reminded the New York Times that around the world, “There are still 80 million people who don’t have enough money to buy the food they need.”
WHO staffers who worry about hunger have it right. True, millions suffer from obesity in the industrial West, especially here. After spending 10 days among the svelte citizens of Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo in 1995, for example, I flew 14 hours nonstop from Narita Airport, outside Japan’s capitol, to Newark. The first Americans I saw upon deplaning were a pair of U.S. Customs officers. They must have weighed 250 pounds each. Their thighs cascaded over the stools they occupied. “Home at last,” I thought to myself.
But Americans and Europeans (who tend to be thinner than us anyway) have access to Slimfast and Stairmaster. Switching from fat-drenched meals to sea kelp and seltzer — and plenty in between — is a matter of individual choice, responsibility, and willpower in the G-8 countries. Westerners have as many options as notches in their belts.
Too many in the third world wonder, though, when they might eat again. Even worse, if that is possible, are the myriad exotic diseases that still wipe them out. The WHO’s African region endures a staggering mortality rate of 163 deaths per 1,000 live births among children under age five (versus 101 in the Eastern Mediterranean and 30 in the Americas regions).
In 2000, malaria killed 906,000 children, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Picture 34 loaded school buses plunging fatally over a cliff every day. Measles kills nearly 1 million kids per year, 450,000 of them African. Tuberculosis, takes 1.7 million lives each year, primarily among adolescents and adults. Meanwhile, diarrhea-related ailments killed 2.2 million people in 1998.
Rather than fret over rotund capitalists who can fend for themselves, WHOniks should target their $2.2 billion budget (including at least $185.4 million in U.S. government contributions for 2002-2003) against the third world’s deadly microbes and the parasites that transmit them. WHO luminaries should heed Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. While in Africa last month with U2′s lead singer, Bono, O’Neill found a water-purification plant that was completed in exchange for $2,000 in debt forgiveness. As columnist Philip Terzian notes, O’Neill calculated that Uganda could spend $2,000-per-well and offer its citizens clean water for a total of $25 million.
Basic sanitation and vaccines would help enormously. Likewise, allowing African villagers to spray DDT inside their homes would shield them from malarial mosquitoes. Instead, Western aid agencies fight DDT because of the risks it once posed to America’s most majestic birds. The trouble, of course, is that Africa is short on bald eagles and long on dead babies.
The U.N.’s nutritional schizophrenia erupted in Rome, as the Times of London reports. Delegates to the U.N.’s World Food Summit, mainly from the third world, arrived at the June 10 kickoff luncheon in police-escorted limousines. Some 170 waiters served the 3,000 global menu cops foie gras, lobster vinaigrette, filet of goose stuffed with olives and fruit compote to close. No doubt, they dreamed of Americans dining on salad and iced tea.