Mexico Finds a UN Program Is Worse Than the Ills It Was Asked to Cure

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What happens when a president asks the United Nations to take over a chunk of his country’s economy? Ask Mexicans who are dying while their government farms out the country’s pharma industry.

As President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador returned Wednesday from a visit to the United Nations, hundreds of parents of cancer stricken children angrily greeted him at the Mexico City airport. AMLO, as the president is known, then gathered his cabinet, banged on the table, and publicly demanded the health ministry put an end to the crisis.

“What AMLO didn’t do is admit his own failure,” Maria Elena Perez-Jaen told me. Earlier the Mexican activist made a splash on national television, blaming medical shortages on a pact the president made with a UN agency.

In 2020, AMLO’s government and the United Nations Office for Project Services signed a $6 billion deal to, in effect, take over Mexico’s pharmaceutical industry for the years between 2021 and 2024. For its services, UNOPS was to be paid $109 million by the government.

Since then, however, pharmacy shelves around the country have emptied, hospital equipment has been lacking, and vaccines became harder to find. Children’s mortality from cancer rose due to the shortages. Altogether, 444,722 more Mexicans died in 2020 and the first nine months of 2021 than in previous such spans — a rate much higher than the government’s official statistic on Covid-related deaths.

What caused all the misery? Mr. Lopez Obrador, a scion of Latin America’s hard left, has bought into the notion that the UN can cure his country’s ills, including corruption. After his election victory, Mr. Lopez Obrador consolidated the various health-related federal agencies into one, which he named the National Health Institute for Well Being.

Then, to straighten out a perceived corruption-plagued industry, he went back to UNOPS. Partnering with INSABI, the UN agency promised “to help maximize the transparency and effectiveness of health procurement” in the country, Erika Cristina Paredes, an UNOPS spokeswoman in Mexico, told me in an email.

Some “transparency,” says Ms. Perez-Jaen. A former head of Mexico’s federal office for ensuring government openness, she tried, for months to use Mexico’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act to get data on AMLO’s UN deal. She finally flew to New York this week to personally file a complaint with the UN’s watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services. Passing along information dug up independently, she called on OIOS to further investigate the Mexico-UNOPS deal.

Mexico’s shortage of medicine and equipment “is caused largely by the inexperience and ineffectiveness of UNOPS,” Ms. Perez-Jaen tells me. The agency, she says, is simply unqualified to handle Mexico’s complex health system.

As Octavio Gómez Dantés, a researcher at Mexico City’s National Institute of Public Health, told the Lancet magazine, “We went from a situation where there were medicines and surely there was corruption to a situation where there are no medicines and we don’t know if there is corruption.”

Sure enough, the blame game begins. Ms. Paredes of UNOPS, tells me the agency is fulfilling its responsibility to procure medicines. It’s the government agency, INSABI, that “has the responsibility of distributing and delivering the medicines to all the health institutions.”

AMLO meanwhile blames everyone — his predecessors, past pharma monopolies, corrupt executives, and “international right-wing groups,” that are out to get him.

Meanwhile, rumors abound in Mexico City that the government already plans to dissolve its partnership with UNOPS. The agency didn’t confirm, but Ms. Paredes said they’re aware of such press reports.

In the aftermath of the Oil for Food scandal, the late Secretary General Kofi Annan said the UN should never again attempt to take over large swaths of a country’s economy, as that graft-plagued program did in Iraq. Unheeding the advice, Mexicans now are learning anew that the UN cure can be worse than any national disease.


Twitter @bennyavni

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