Tom Paulson

Why do aid workers like to cut off their nose to spite their face?

I’ve always liked that phrase, about cutting off your nose to get back at your face. It’s both wonderfully absurd and so bloody descriptive of our tendency to act against our own interests.

Today, I want to defend aid and development workers against themselves.

To be clear, I am not really an expert on this stuff. I am a journalist and, I accept, a lower form of life with no special insights into … well, much of anything.

Worse, as someone of Scandinavian bent, I am predisposed to holding a relatively bleak view of humanity and distrusting those who smile too much and/or claim they’re primarily motivated to help others.

Yet my job is to write about these folks who aspire to reduce global poverty, prevent deaths from unacceptably stupid causes like dirty water or lack of basic preventive health measures like vaccination — and generally keep slogging along trying to make the world a better place for the poor, for all of us.

I have to admit I am, despite myself, constantly amazed, encouraged and even inspired by these people.

So what the heck is their problem?

Why do they keep flogging themselves, even celebrating those who criticize and ridicule them? Why are they so passionate and engaged about what’s wrong with what they do? Continue reading



Old drug could be a big new deal for fight against malaria

This scientific finding got a little bit of media attention, but deserves more:

A cheap drug, called Ivermectin (or brand name Mectizan), that Merck originally made for dogs may become a useful new weapon against one of the world’s biggest killers, malaria.

It was discovered many years ago that this drug also works against other parasitic worms that cause river blindness (onchocerciasis) and elephantiasis (filariasis). Merck, apparently unaware that it is supposed to be an evil drug company, has for more than 15 years been donating this drug to poor countries in Africa to fight these debilitating diseases.




Economies: The worst 10 and 27 most overheated

Forbes and The Economist both felt compelled recently to evaluate the economies of the world, but according to two different measures.

Forbes has listed the 10 worst economies of the world, with Madagascar ranked as having the worst economy according to the magazine’s somewhat arbitrary criteria (which includes, for example, measures of political corruption that somehow condemns Nicaragua but celebrates Zimbabwe?). An excerpt explaining why it’s picking on Madagascar:

It’s manmade problems like this that landed Madagascar on the top of the Forbes list of the World’s Worst Economies in 2011. There are worse basket cases (see: Somalia).  But among the countries with relatively complete data tracked by the International Monetary Fund, Madagascar, sometimes called the “Eighth Continent” because of its natural diversity, stands out for political mismanagement, corruption, poverty and lack of growth.

The Forbes top 10 worst economies:

  1. Madagascar
  2. Armenia
  3. Guinea
  4. Ukraine
  5. Jamaica
  6. Venezuela
  7. Kyrgystan
  8. Swaziland
  9. Nicaragua
  10. Iran

The Economist has taken a different tack to ranking economies of the world.




Winners and losers in global health

Botswana: An African success story in the fight against AIDS

Al Jazeera: The great billion-dollar drug (and vaccine) scam?

The pharmaceutical industry often trots out some pretty stunning numbers to explain why their drugs cost so much. A journalist and South African scholar scrutinizes the numbers for Al Jazeera.

In the first part of a two-part series called “The great billion dollar drug scam,” investigative journalist Khadija Sharife begins her analysis (interestingly, oddly, labeled by Al Jazeera as an opinion piece) with a focus on the Gates Foundation-backed global vaccination project known as GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization:

Alongside pneumococcal diseases such as meningitis and pneumonia, rotavirus-related diarrhoea is a primary childhood killer in developing countries, thought to snuff out the lives of 500,000 children each and every year. An overwhelming 85 per cent of these children are African and Asian. The need for medical miracles is as great as ever, but corporate mispricing generates huge profits, while driving up the price of life saving medicines.

British-based drug corporation GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) recently offered a five-year deal to supply poor nations with 125 million doses of the rotavirus vaccine – Rotarix – at $2.50 a dose, just five per cent of the current going price in Western markets. Through the GAVI group, the international vaccine agency financed by developed nations such as the UK, it is hoped that GSK and pharmaceutical multinational Merck – who, between them, dominate the rotavirus vaccine market – will provide a secure line of low-cost drugs for as many as forty countries in the near future.

But is it really a discount, and if so, who is paying the cost?

I think this is easy enough to answer: Yes, these are clearly discounts (about one-tenth what the vaccine costs in the U.S.) and we in the rich world are basically subsidizing cheaper vaccines for the poor world.

Is it enough of a discount? Some think not. Others think we’re getting a pretty good deal and need to be more sympathetic to the much-maligned drug industry.



Should we pay less for vaccines?

Owen Barder, a development expert at the Center for Global Development, asks “Should we pay less for vaccines?

Barder’s post was prompted by the critical response some advocacy groups, like Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders) made after the successful fund-raising effort on June 13 by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, a massive project getting vaccines out to poor kids.

As I noted at the time, these organizations and others were glad to see GAVI receive $4.3 billion in new funding but they felt the alliance was a bit too friendly to the drug industry and too willing to accept industry pricing.

This issue, of what constitutes fair vaccine pricing for poor countries, came up repeatedly this week at Seattle’s Pacific Health Summit. I intend to write about that in a separate post later.

For now, I urge you to read Barder’s excellent take on the critics of GAVI and the vaccine manufacturers. Continue reading



Which four diseases face total eradication? Bill Foege predicts these…

Smallpox was, until yesterday, the only disease that had ever been eradicated from the planet.

The United Nations yesterday declared that rinderpest, a cattle disease that when prevalent had profound adverse impact on humanity, is now the second disease to have been eradicated.

Bill Foege, one of our local boys made good, is a big fan of disease eradication.

Foege is the world-renowned physician who figured out the strategy that succeeded in wiping out smallpox. He is featured in an interview on disease eradication on PRI’s The World “How to Kill a KIller Disease.”

“I think maybe six diseases will be eradicated before I die,” said Foege, listing the next four as… (more)




Seattle’s charity event scores big — for causes & credit card firms

Development and foreign aid often fail to help the poor

Several articles came out recently that illustrate why we need to sharpen our development and foreign aid strategies. Basically, here are the two key problems:

1. Development is not automatically a good thing for the poor and disenfranchised. Often it hurts the poor.

2. Our approach to foreign aid often appears little about aiding and more about politics, foreign payback.

To the first point, Jonathan Glennie at the Guardian writes about the economic growth experienced by Colombia and how this has done little to improve the lives of most Colombians. In his article “Columbia’s Amoral Development,” Glennie writes: (more)