Are these the global health leaders who will save humanity?

By on July 14, 2015


I recently started reading the book ‘To save humanity’ (edited by Julio Frenk & Steven Hoffman), after receiving it as a present from my colleague Gorik Ooms. It’s a collection of essays, and I’m not far yet.

Witnessing the almost criminal “spectacle” over the last weeks and especially days in Brussels, one cannot help but wonder whether these are the leaders we need ‘to save humanity’, post-2015.

Let’s focus here on Angela Merkel, who has recently become some sort of ‘global health leader’, after her G7 commitment, role in the GAVI replenishment and speech at the World Health Assembly, in which she argued for swift WHO reform. In health diplomacy circles, she’s a rising star, it’s fair to say.

However, if you believe global health is about justice, dignity, humanity, equity, ‘leaving no one behind’ and the like, then you wonder what we have witnessed over the weekend.

High-level bullying, blackmailing, leaking of comments and other ‘signals’ by the Eurogroup to more or less organize a bank run in Greece (in the words of a Belgian economist), and thus put even more pressure on the Greek government, ignoring democracy (even if I know that the referendum in Greece only pertained to the Greek polity), worse, taking revenge for even daring to organize a referendum and challenging the elite consensus in the institutions, “setting an example” for any country daring to challenge TINA-policies (which don’t even work), ….

I don’t want to use the terms  ‘mental waterboarding’ or ‘coup’ here, but it’s clear that Merkel, together with her finance minister, played a key role in the humiliation of an entire people. That she got support for that from a bunch of other European leaders makes it even worse.  These days, more and more European citizens have to ‘decode’ their leaders’ statements, to try to figure out what they really want to say, not unlike the way Soviet citizens were reading the Pravda in the old days.

If you believe that our leaders should also be role models, and inspire hope for a better future, then this was certainly a shocking weekend. But even more than the despicable high-level summit behavior, I blame Merkel and co for killing the hope among ordinary citizens for a better, fairer European Union. She has made it clear that, at most, the EU can only mitigate the forces of neoliberal globalization and capitalism, and that a currency matters far more than people.

It looks like we have our own ‘domino theory’ now in the Eurozone, more than forty years after the US in South-East Asia. It is probably correct that letting go of one Eurozone member would put pressure on many others and could lead to disintegration of the euro; but it’s even more correct to say that Merkel and other hardliners are killing the very dream and ideals of the European Union, while ostensibly “saving the euro”.  The EU as a ‘role model’ for the rest of the world, is now definitely a thing of the past.   We’re increasingly getting a European Union, shaped by Davos men and women. I can only hope that some parliament in the Eurozone will shoot down this sorry ‘Agreekment’ in the coming days.

So yes, I will not cheer if Germany manages to increase its ODA to 0.7 %, as it promises to do (not unlike the UK government, that other ‘role model’). In the new ‘sustainable development & planetary health’ era we need leaders who can inspire people to take difficult choices; we do not need leaders who encourage even more cynicism among their citizens, displaying the hard and merciless power of global financial capital. And yes, I know there’s a lot of path dependency here, and that Merkel and other European leaders also have to take into account their own public opinion. But then again, most of this path dependency is of their own making (with the huge debt “restructuring” from banks to taxpayers as a key example). The fact that she and many other leaders and technocrats are very hardworking people (for which they deserve our respect) doesn’t change this.

I wonder why global health voices remain so muted on this, whereas economists are all over the place. But I’m afraid we know the answer.  The question remains though: are these really the global health leaders who will lead humanity to a better future?

In an episode of the third season of ‘House of Cards’, at some point Robin Wright, First Lady in that season, warns her husband for the Russian president (Petrov). “Highly intelligent”, she says, “but still a thug.

We ain’t there yet, for our leaders in the Eurozone. But we’re getting closer.

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2 Responses to “Are these the global health leaders who will save humanity?”

  1. Nana

    Thanks Kristof,

    for this much-needed perspective. I’ve been following the news on the Greek/Eurozone affair…or hurts to say. I’ve wondered myself about many of the sentiments you expressed. I also recently looked up the book “To save humanity” though I agree that your question is timely: Are these really the leaders that will ‘save humanity…?” If we can’t confidently nod in the affirmative, what should we absolutely put in place to ensure an upcoming generation of leaders that place people above politics?
    Nana EV4GH 2014

  2. Bruno Meessen

    Thanks Kristof. I must say that I prefer this blog than your previous one (the one where you were seeing a chance in populism). Syriza was populist during its electoral campaign; they propose something they could not offer. Citizens of Northern Europe have elected right-party governments with very strict & moral beliefs as for austerity. They should have known that this was a major obstacle. This week-end was terrible because we have discovered that other European governments can themselves be very populist: they did not dare to say to their citizens that austerity was a dead-end for Greece. This is what really shocked me. As you can read this morning, the technocrats (=the IMF) are very upset with this macro-economic nonsense coming from Europe. So the wave of populism in Europe plays very differently according to a geographical divide and is just leading to a clash. This is very worrying (and my worries go beyond the Euro survival).


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