Address at the World Health Organization Conference

"This Conference focuses our attention primarily on the important connections between physical health and economic survival. In doing so, everyone here needs to look beyond our own individual fields of expertise and national boundaries for solutions to the problems of poverty and bad health, world-wide."
Jakarta, Indonesia • September 16, 1977

This Conference focuses our attention primarily on the important connections between physical health and economic survival. In doing so, everyone here needs to look beyond our own individual fields of expertise and national boundaries for solutions to the problems of poverty and bad health, world-wide.

This conference hopes to […type unclear…] a new chapter which can begin a revolution that will address, once and for all, the destructive connection between poverty and ill health.

All of us must find ways to work together. We must view our world and our interconnectedness dramatically, profoundly, and courageously.

We must forge new and different partnerships to reduce and eliminate the threat that poverty poses to our health as individuals and as communities.

No individual, no nation, no community, can be content with policies that stop at political borders. Such borders have often been [barriers] to health and to the eradication of disease in the past. The new era we are now facing requires new initiatives and imagination based on new realities.

A century ago, Kierkegaard wrote:

“The individual no longer belongs only to his God, to himself, his beloved, to his art or science…”

Today no nation belongs solely to its citizens, or its ideology or its art, science, or its vision for the future. We now belong to a seamless world separated only by barriers chosen or created by our ancestors before the revolutions in communications, in travel, in economics, and in military weaponry, which have made all those old barriers useless and even poisonous for all human beings. In the New World, recognition of our common existence is the precondition of a secure existence.

The kind of generalities I have just expressed are not news to anyone in this audience, but yesterday’s edition of the New York Times contained a long, long article on the World Bank. By publishing that article with its extensive quotations from important financial leaders, the New York Times, at least, indicated its belief that a New World and new economic realities confront all of us nowadays, and of course, the World Health Organization itself.

Please Listen to these words drawn from that article:-- “Economic development is the pre-eminent moral challenge facing mankind. The World Bank’s role has never been more important”.

Those are the words of Deputy Secretary of Treasury of the United States, Laurence H. Summers.

In keeping with Secretary Summers’ words, the head of the World Bank, James D. Wolfensohn, has been encouraging top officials of the bank to move from Washington to the countries they are responsible for helping. World Bank employees are now being required to stay for at least a week in a poor village or slum where many of them, for the first time in their lives, can see what the World Bank’s efforts are all about. Mr. Wolfensohn wants to create the World Bank as a partner with government, with their development agencies, with grassroots groups, and other non-governmental organizations, and perhaps most important, with the companies, investors and other sources of private capital that have transformed Asia and Latin America and are doing so to varying degrees elsewhere in the world.

Many governmental and private sector experts now maintain the World Bank is no longer needed, and moreover, its work does not reach the people who most need assistance.

But James Wolfemsohn says that he has had terrible times in his life, and sometimes he wonders whether his work for the World Bank can truly prove to be profoundly significant. But he concludes:--

“I have a passionate belief in this organization. We can make a difference between peace and war. We can make a differences between poverty and a fair life for people. I am not saying, he adds, that we can solve all the problems, but we can make a difference”.

When the head of the World Bank talks like that and is quoted in the business section of the New York Times, I can tell everybody in this room that the world of business and banks has changed profoundly and will change even more in the decades to come. Bankers have never talked as Wolfensohn has talked. Banks have never said, “We can make a difference between peace and war. We can make a difference between poverty and a fair life for people”.

It happens, however, that I agree 100% with Jim Wolfensohn, not because I am a banker, but because I have worked with political and economic leaders in 100 or more countries on every continent. I think I know a little bit about what needs to be done.

Please let me shock you now by turning abruptly to a social movement which will certainly seem to many of you as being totally unrelated to the context of our meeting, or to any meeting sponsored by the World Health Organization.

Less than 30 years ago, an athletic program for persons with Mental Retaradation was started in the U.S.A. That program is called “Special Olympics International”. That program was aimed to help human beings with mental retardation. Twenty-five years later, that program now enlists 1,200,000 human beings with mental retardation. Another 1,000,000 people work as volunteers in that organization, and another 2,000,000 brothers and sisters, parents and friends of the athletes also work as volunteers. The annual income of that private philanthropy now exceeds $135 million in the USA alone. Nearly all of that in the form of contributions from private persons. The program has achieved great success and endorsement from Communist countries and leaders like Fidel Castro in Cuba and Deng Xiaoping in the People’s Republic of China. Approximately 10,000 Special Olympics games are conducted every year in countries all over the globe, and those competitions are managed by private citizens who are motivated to help the absolutely “least of all human beings”. When I say the “least of all human beings”, I mean human beings who are mentally retarded, incapable of ever becoming rich, economically speaking; but surprisingly, they are rich, rich, rich in their gentle non-combative, peaceful behavior. They threaten no one. They are friendly with everyone. They love everyone on earth. They cause no trouble to anybody.

No worldwide effort on behalf of these people—170 million people existing on earth has ever before been mounted. To everyone’s surprise, thousands and thousands of these mentally handicapped people are now gainfully employed in low-level jobs. They are turning into economically productive human beings even though they continue to exist at the lowest level, economically speaking.

Their health is vastly improved. Fifty years ago, such people normally, if you will, died before reaching even forty years of age. Now they live as long as most of us. Especially if they are in countries with a degree of medical sensitivity.

As a result of the Special Olympics Movement the numbers of those beneficially assisted, economically as well as in terms of their health, will grow, exponentially in the next 10-20 and 30 years. Not only will this growth help persons with mental retardation, the program is transforming the economic and spiritual outlook of everyone connected with it. That number includes political leaders and economists, and businessmen of all nationalities. Special Olympics grows as worldwide revolution from the bottom of humanity, in every country on earth. Millions of human beings are being shifted from the negative side of the economic system into economically productive human beings. If financial development is the pre-eminent moral challenge facing mankind as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, Laurence H. Summers says, then Special Olympics is helping to meet that challenge in ways never before seen on this planet.

I bring Special Olympics to your attention today because I know a lot about it. I do so, however, certain in my belief that additional and maybe much better new initiatives are coming into existence in local communities all over the world. They are assisted, thanks be to God, by new initiatives finance by the World Bank. But as Mr. Wolfensohn says, “Getting individual projects organized and operational today will not suffice unless they are profoundly increased by comprehensive programs locally and nationally to solve the problems of poverty, inequality and the absence of social justice”.

This meeting of experts could create many new initiatives directly addressing the threats of poverty to our physical, environmental and economic health. Such movements should not attempt to advocate any liberal or conservative philosophy. Such movements do not send “ideological representatives” into the field. Instead human beings motivated by hope, inspired by faith in the human society, and committed to the service of their fellow human beings provide the energy and leadership. Individuals who can represent a positive spirit willing to provide direction and honest leadership to summon the best in everyone toward the goals expressed in the Baltimore Charter.

A generation ago, when the United States began the Peace Corps, we knew our volunteers had skills and knowledge to offer. In turn, our volunteers learned from the individuals with whom they worked even if, or possibly because, many of those human beings were desperately poor, ill-housed, if housed at all, with few if any expectations that their lives would be materially changed, let alone improved by Peace Corps Volunteers. We learned as they learned. As Peace Corps continues, we continue to learn from the experiences Volunteers bring home. Our Volunteers return more attuned to the rank and file in foreign countries. In turn, the people our Volunteers serve learn about the people of the United States. The Peace Corps was and continues to be about service worldwide.

Our Volunteers learn that the hopes and dreams of those around the world are no different from ours in the United States. We all want security from the threat of violence. We all want our children to have a better future and to be able to live up to their potential. To accomplish this, we have to create the environment in which our children are born healthy, stay healthy, become educated, and know with certainty that there is a meaningful way for them to participate in our increasingly global economy.

We cannot leave the search for answers necessary to break the cycle of poverty and ill-health to governments alone. Beyond national programs, there are roles for businesses large or small. There is a role for private foundations, universities and other non-governmental organizations.

Most importantly, there is a role for individual volunteers—regardless of their field of expertise or country of origin. Nearly two million people a day cross national borders traveling or participating in commerce. Although the movement of so many people raises health concerns about diseases that can be spread rapidly, it also creates great opportunities for individuals to lean from each other and to create a global spirit.

The globalization of health problems and the risks to our security and economic survival represent an urgent international challenge and an extraordinary opportunity for all sectors to work together. You are part of this unique opportunity to implement solutions and allow all of us to benefit from the spread of innovation and techniques that have been proven to work.

Creating mutually beneficial partnerships can leverage expertise and scarce resources for disease prevention, control and elimination of specific diseases. Effective partnerships can stimulate research and development, enhance training and education, and lead to useful change. Combining the resources of many fields can ultimately prove to be more efficient and cost-effective.

We know that poverty is both a direct and indirect cause of bad health, and, in turn, bad health makes people poor.

This century has seen unprecedented progress in scientific breakthroughs to diagnose and treat diseases, even to eradicate some diseases formerly lethal to human life. Life expectancy has grown, so that many of the health problems of the future will be the diseases of an aging population—far different from those we have faced in the past. Yet the world’s poorest people still suffer the heavy burden of largely avoidable diseases and early death.

There are other areas of concern which can have a profound impact on our mutual health. Environmental changes have promoted the emergence of new diseases and other health problems. We need to better understand these changes and their impact on our health and survival.

Violence also creates debilitating physical and psychological injuries. Violence not only reduces personal health, but diminishes our sense of security and restricts economic growth. It contributes to our communities’ decline and the degradation of the human spirit. And now, more than ever, there is the threat of the use of chemical and biological agents in war- or through terrorism.

Health services become only a wasted resource if our citizens are not safe from violence. In the long run, it is not cost effective to patch up the child who has been the innocent victim of gun-fire without addressing the causes which created that violence.

Government cannot do this alone. The private sector cannot act alone. Joint efforts between public and private sectors are needed to improve our communities. Employers know they need an educated workforce composed of persons who have safe homes to go to at the end of the day. Healthy individuals have more opportunities to learn and to participate in the economy. Social entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged not just for economic survival, but to promote the overall well-being of all individuals. By joining forces, public and private joint ventures can create cost effective solutions which raise the health of individuals and the economic health of communities.

We need to hear stronger voices of those persons around the world who are willing to tackle the challenge, to build on the ideas that have proven to be successful in creating change and export ideas for use in new settings and conditions. We need voices which recognize how one, individual, positive act can touch the lives of many. We need to remind ourselves that the ideas and concepts which have revolutionized the world in the past have come from individuals who were willing to experiment and think differently. The ideas and concepts which you will discuss here can cross social and political borders and change the world of tomorrow!

As individuals with ideas and experience to share, you can create the partnerships which will provide answers that can be replicated for use in the United States as well as Africa or Asia.

You face several challenges as you participate in this conference. First you must be able to look at the old but find new uses. Second, you must create the linkages with business, education and governments which will create working solutions to break the cycle of poverty and ill health. Then you must assure that those linkages continue into the next month, the next year, and towards solutions for the next century. And you must seek and welcome participation by the poor themselves!

Looking at old ideas and seeing something new is not an easy task. Seeing how new partnerships fit into the structures in which you are already working is just as difficult. Adapting to change—regardless of how noble those changes may be—is hard for the human spirit to accept. When you return home, you must lead from the strength of ideas gained from this conference. Together you must forge a common vision to improve the health of all of us, regardless of where we live on this small planet. Your work today is the work of all of us. You can bring the revolution that creates communities in which the cycle of poverty and ill health is broken. It is hard work—but it is critical work. The dialogue you begin here, and in the commitment of the Baltimore Charter, is a cornerstone upon which we must build our vision of security. We have a common existence and a common goal. Now we must learn from each other to accomplish the goal of a secure, healthy and peaceful world.

Take up the challenge to learn from each other and agree to follow through in the creation of new partnerships and new networks worldwide.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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