The third ten years of the World Health Organization: 1968–1977
Publisher: World Health Organization, Geneva, 2008;
ISBN 978-9241563666; 340 pages;
Important institutions deserve a historical record and at the same time have the obligation to provide their constituents with an account of their purpose and achievements. The World Health Organization (WHO) is such an institution and it has recently published a record of its third decade, reviewing its activities from 1968 to 1977.
Based almost entirely on WHO publications, this is an invaluable summary of what happened within the Organization during those years. This book provides brief notes on the contemporary activities of all the departments, programmes, World Health Assembly decisions, Executive Board meetings, Expert Committee discussions and other matters concerning the Organization and world health. It helps the reader see rapidly what was happening then and saves him or her from consulting the mountain of Official Records, a search that could still be done easily as all the recorded facts are fully referenced. Being a “record of records”, as the author states, this book is a digest that provides researchers, staff and health ministries with a handy information tool about WHO, in particular about its third decade.
But this facility also constitutes its relative weakness. In its care to summarize the records, there is no attempt for analysis nor a search for trends, interrelationships or interactions. This obviously was a deliberate decision, as it is stated that “the advantages of hindsight have been firmly resisted” and “no effort has been made to look forward in time to assess successes or failures”. This singular approach to history is a marked departure from the original idea of the 10-yearly volumes. In the first issue (1948–1958), the then Director-General noted that “… an effort has been made not only to review the history of these past ten years but also to place the events of that period against the background of previous achievements, and to indicate the broad lines along which future activities could develop”. The present volume’s limitation to a “record of records” does provide the bones and material for a history but does not write the history of this now historically mature sexagenarian Organization.
The 14 chapters of the book touch upon the entire field of WHO’s work, some more extensively than others. The highlights of the decade are well recorded and the initial steps for smallpox eradication rightly receive special mention. Perhaps the best rendition is in the epilogue, which gives an excellent account of Alma-Ata: the international conference on primary health care that, paradoxically, falls outside the decade in question. It provides inspiration and sufficient analyses to make one yearn for more and to make it worth owning the book.
S William A Gunn a
aInternational Association for Humanitarian Medicine, 3 Chemin du Milieu, Bogis-Bossey, VD, 1279, Switzerland (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2010;88:876-876. doi: 10.2471/BLT.10.077313