Represented by Julia Schad and Johannes Zöphel
The United Nations is an organization with ambitious goals. It considers itself to be “central to global efforts to solve problems that challenge humanity”. Promoting International Security and Human Rights, protecting the environment, fighting disease, and reducing poverty – that means no less than fighting the most complex problems our planet faces today.
How can a single organization take up this challenge successfully? The key is the United Nations’ role as a coordinator. A central part of its work is gathering and distributing information, synchronizing efforts, and being a platform for discourse and decision making.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) works exactly like this: It is essentially a network. All of the 166 member countries have a local UNDP office, which provides advice and technical support. However, these are also connected to other UNDP offices that might give or require experience, know-how or equipment. The locally acquired data is centralized and published annually in the Human Development Report, in which UNDP informs scientist, policymakers, NGOs and the public about the status of and challenges to development. UNDP focuses on democratic governance, poverty reduction, crisis prevention and recovery, environmental, and HIV/AIDS issues.
At HNMUN, an imaginary UNDP executive committee with about 60 member states was simulated. Topic one on the agenda was Generic Drugs and Intellectual Property Rights. For reasons of time we did not discuss topic two: Small arms and demobilization.
We spent four days working intensely negotiating compromises, writing drafts, discussing amendments, and debating. Our topic was of such importance and controversy that it was hard not to get too emotional.
A generic drug is a chemically identical copy of a branded drug. But since branded drugs’ prices include research and development (R&D) costs whereas generic drugs’ prices do not, the latter naturally are cheaper. Obviously, this can be an incentive for companies not to invest in R&D but to wait for others to do so in order to merely copy their developments later on. To counterbalance this obstacle to innovation, industrialized countries created patent laws, which grant a timely limited monopoly for R&D results. By protecting companies from competitors that offer generic und thus cheaper versions, legislators created a strong incentive to innovate.
But this solution is not perfect. Since monopolists do not face direct competition, their products are offered at higher prices and the incentive for innovation is ultimately paid for by the consumer. This is acceptable in industrialized countries, because medication is at least partially provided by welfare programmes. However, the situation is very different in underdeveloped countries: Prices for medication are often prohibitive for large parts of the population. Is it morally acceptable that high monopoly prices cost lives in developing countries, although people would have been able to afford generic versions? Of course not. But this is about how far states agree. From here it gets pretty complex. Countries like Bangladesh and NGOs like Oxfam argue that the right to live obliges the international community to come up with a solution that provides cheap generic drugs for everybody. States with strong pharmaceutical industries like the US and Germany agree that medication should be available to everybody. But diseases that threaten the developing world are of minor importance in industrialized countries. So, in order to provide incentives for companies in the developed world to spend R&D on these diseases, they need patent protection worldwide. It always gets tricky when discussing the details. For example, a solution that allows developing countries to manufacture their own generic drugs might be acceptable to countries like India that have the capacity to do so. But the poorest of the poor lack that infrastructure. They would again rely on others.
The conference was an experience of tremendous value to us because it made us experience what can not easily be explained theoretically. Developing countries represented the majority of votes. And yet, the resolution we passed can be at best described as “of little help” from the standpoint of Bangladesh. Why did that happen? One reason was conference dynamics. It is not easy to keep a heterogeneous group (i.e. developing states) from being subdivided by small disputes. And tactical maneuvers from the industrialized world in order to break alliances by promising advantages to specific states did not help either. The most important reason, however, was that compromises aiming at making the world less unequal naturally include some transfer of funds from developed to developing countries. This gives effectively a veto power to the developed world.
In real negotiations it is even more difficult for underdeveloped countries. The 2005 WTO Summit in Hong Kong was disappointing to the seven delegates that had come from Bangladesh – a country with 150 million inhabitants. The US diplomats – representing 300 million inhabitants – had done quite a good job on the other hand. How many were there? 350.
Still, judging the UN one always has to consider the enormity of the task. Progress is being made slowly, but persistence may ultimately lead to success. The will to strive for the better was common to all in UNDP at Harvard National Modal United Nations 2006.
Julia Schad and Johannes Zöphel