With Covid-19 cases again rising around the globe, the World Health Organization (WHO) has faced increased scrutiny from governments on its handling of the early pandemic. Today, the organization plays a key role in defining global public health and coordinating responses to disease, but this mandate has shifted over time.

A 2011 paper by THEODORE BROWN, MARCOS CUETO, and ELIZABETH FEE investigates the origins of WHO’s current global public health program and its partnerships with non-governmental institutions.

From the paper:

“In January 1992, the Executive Board of the World Health Assembly decided to appoint a ‘working group’ to recommend how WHO could be most effective in international health work in light of the ‘global change’ rapidly overtaking the world. The executive board may have been responding, in part, to the Children’s Vaccine Initiative, perceived within WHO as an attempted ‘coup’ by UNICEF, the World Bank, the UN Development Program, the Rockefeller Foundation, and several other players seeking to wrest control of vaccine development. The working group’s final report of May 1993 recommended that WHO—if it was to maintain leadership of the health sector—must overhaul its fragmented management of global, regional, and country programs, diminish the competition between regular and extrabudgetary programs, and, above all, increase the emphasis within WHO on global health issues and WHO’s coordinating role in that domain.

In 1998, the World Health Assembly reached outside the ranks of WHO for a new leader who could restore credibility to the organization and provide it with a new vision: Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and a physician and public health professional. She established a Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, chaired by economist Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University and including former ministers of finance and officers from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the UN Development Program, as well as public health leaders. The commission issued a report in December 2001, which argued that improving health in developing countries was essential to their economic development. The report identified a set of disease priorities that would require focused intervention. Brundtland also began to strengthen WHO’s financial position, largely by organizing ‘global partnerships’ and ‘global funds’ to bring together ‘stakeholders’—private donors, governments, and bilateral and multilateral agencies—to concentrate on specific targets. A very significant player in these partnerships was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which committed more than $1.7 billion between 1998 and 2000 to an international program to prevent or eliminate diseases in the world’s poorest nations, mainly through vaccines and immunization programs.Within a few years, some 70 ‘global health partnerships’ had been created.”

Link to the piece.

  • Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Nikolai Kremenstov offer an account of the 1978 Alma-Ata conference, which was hosted by the Soviet Union and advocated for a WHO focus on primary health care. Link. David A. Tejada de Rivero recounts WHO’s move to selective primary health care, relying on smaller, low-cost interventions. Link.
  • “Infectious diseases have gained ground as global health priorities, while non-communicable diseases and the broader issues of health systems development have been neglected.” By Eeva Ollila. Link.
  • “Although the [World Bank’s] role in generating and disseminating global health knowledge is important, its main advantage compared with other international institutions is its ability to mobilize financial resources.” Jennifer Prah Ruger looks at the role of the World Bank, which began to increase its influence in global public health in the 1980s. Link.


Technocratic Reforms and Higher Education in Chile

Assistant Professor at EPGE Brazilian School of Economics and Finance PABLO MUÑOZ HENRÍQUEZ studies labor economics, political economy, and the effects of state repression. In a 2020 joint paper, Muñoz examines the long-term consequences of Augusto Pinochet’s higher education policies in Chile.

From the paper:

“In the case of Chile, the technocratic reforms implemented during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) are often credited for the country’s economic success over the past 35 years. These reforms were spearheaded by a group of economists known as the ‘Chicago Boys’, as most had been trained at the University of Chicago. In this paper, we shed light on the socioeconomic costs of the Pinochet dictatorship’s technocratic agenda. We focus on the capture of higher education in the early years of the regime. During this period, the government assumed control of all universities in the country and steadily reduced spending on higher education. This led to a steady reduction in the number of openings for incoming college students and caused a large decrease in enrollment for cohorts reaching college age in the following years. Contrary to the technocrats’ claim that universities were bloated and had low returns, we find that the affected cohorts had worse economic outcomes throughout the life cycle and struggled to climb up the socioeconomic ladder. Decades after democratization, children with a parent in these cohorts also have a lower probability of college enrollment.”

Link to the paper, link to Muñoz’s website.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:

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  • Join us on Monday, November 9 at 12 pm ET for a panel moderated by Adam Tooze on “Global Power in the North-Atlantic Financial System.” Link to register and see more information on the panelists.
  • The next meeting of JFI’s Social Wealth Seminar will take place on Tuesday, November 10 at 6 pm ET. The event will feature Steve Randy Waldman, editor at Interfluidity, on perspectives on social wealth funds. RSVP to
  • “The Electoral College today is about 40 times as likely as a National Popular Vote to generate scenarios in which a small number of ballots in a pivotal voting unit determines the Presidency.” By Michael Geruso and Dean Spears. Link.
  • A 2011 article by Kristina M. Campbell shows how Arizona became the center of the immigrant rights movement. Link. And a 2016 article by Walter Nicholls et al. looks at tensions between Arizona-based activists and national immigrant rights organizations. Link.
  • “We show that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would prevent the achievement of the 1.5°C target and, by the end of the century, threaten the achievement of the 2°C target.” Michael Clark et al. on food system challenges in meeting the Paris Agreement goal. Link.
  • Andrea Pozzer et al. estimate that air pollution contributed to 15% of Covid-19 mortality worldwide. Link.
  • Lavinia Conca, Francesco Manta, Domenico Morrone, and Pierluigi Toma find that environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting has a positive effect on European agri-food companies’ profits. Link.
  • Benjamin Bennett, Isil Erel, Léa H. Stern, and Zexi Wang study state-level paid family leave policies, finding positive effects on corporate productivity. Link.
  • “Using previously unexploited archival data [the estimi, property tax registers] I examine the time path of inequality from 1300 to 1800 in northwestern Italy, in particular the domains of the House of Savoy, which today broadly correspond to the Piedmont region. This is an important region of Italy as the Savoys played a fundamental role in the process of unification of the country (completed in 1861). The time series of inequality measures presented here span five centuries and provide new insights into economic development in this pivotal region. The data supports three major findings. First, from the late Middle Ages and throughout the early modern period, inequality in northwestern Italy grew almost continuously, both in cities and in rural areas; the only exception being the period immediately following the Black Death. Second, in examining the consequences of the Black Death, I find that its effects differ from subsequent mortality crises of comparable scale (in particular, the 1630 plague), probably due to institutional change. Third, inequality increased both in periods of economic growth and of economic decline or stagnation.” By Guido Alfani. Link.

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