The UN can only mirror its member countries. While the UN (and for example the EU) are supposed to try and “level up” they very often “level down”. When that happens they disseminate “worst practices” rather than spread “best practices”. The UN’s executive and officers and bureaucrats are not either immune to the corruptions of being in privileged and protected positions. They also disseminate lies when advocating for their pet projects or causes. The problem is that when lies are sanctioned by the UN they take on a sanctity which is downright harmful.
Professor Hans Rosling and Helena Nordenstedt take the UN to task for spreading lies in a new comment to The Lancet. But they also point out the lie was first created in The Lancet itself and suggest that The Lancet should not publish advocacy articles without peer review.
In September, 2016, at the UN General Assembly, the Independent Accountability Panel (IAP) of the UN’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health presented their first report. The IAP report states that 60% of maternal deaths today take place in humanitarian settings, specified as “conflict, displacement and natural disaster”. The “60%” has been trending in development aid advocacy ever since late 2015 when UNFPA stated that 60% of maternal deaths happen in “humanitarian situations like refugee camps”. The 60% has even made its way into policy documents and discourse. The only health data mentioned in the proposed policy framework for Sweden’s future international development cooperation are: “60% of maternal deaths take place in humanitarian emergencies”. We chased the origin of this seemingly incorrect percentage. We found it to be a Comment published in The Lancet, referring to the published underlying data sources and to a grey publication describing the crude calculation that yielded the 60%.
We conclude that the “60%” is a fourfold inaccuracy. It is surprising that, in just 1 year, the false percentage made its way to a highly qualified panel at the UN. Global health seems to have entered into a post-fact era, where the labelling of numerators is incorrectly tweaked for advocacy purposes. The reproductive health needs in humanitarian settings should be reported without hiding that most maternal deaths still occur in extreme poverty. As recently noted in The Lancet, Nigeria’s Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, spoke the truth when stating that the real causes of maternal and child deaths are poverty, inequality, lack of financing, and poor governance. The use of inaccurate numbers in global health advocacy can misguide where investments are most needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. We, therefore, suggest The Lancet should only publish advocacy material after due referee procedures.