UNICEF’s Chemical Weapon

9 Mar

by Theodore Dalrymple 

September 22, 2013

UNICEF’s Chemical Weapon

Yesterday I was on a flight on an airline that claimed to be deeply anxious to preserve the environment, though not quite anxious enough, obviously, to go out of business. This kind of self-righteous sanctimony, a commercial reflection in the mirror of political correctness, ever more prevalent, irritates me greatly, and would irritate me just as much if the claimed virtue were real rather than false. Save the world by all means, but please do so in private.

Worse was to come. A short while before we came into land the chief steward announced over the public address system that the airline was making a charity collection and that this month’s charity was UNICEF. A small contribution—about 60 cents US—was enough to immunize a child against a disease that might otherwise kill it. And to prove that this was true, a recording of a celebrity (of whom, naturally, I had never heard) was played that relayed exactly the same message. How could what a celebrity said be wrong?

Those who would once have been called stewards and stewardesses passed up and down the aircraft aisle to the jingle of allegedly life-saving contributions. It was like passing the plate at the end of a religious service. The passenger next to me gave generously, and for a moment I felt morally intimidated into doing likewise, but in the end I was able to resist. I kept my hands in my pockets.

“Save the world by all means, but please do so in private.”

Quite apart from the fact that there are few countries that really could not save their children’s lives for 60 cents if they really wanted to (rather than, say, have their ambassadors riding chauffeur-driven around the capitals of Europe in black Mercedes limousines), I am not an unequivocal admirer of UNICEF. This is not just because their Christmas cards are in doubtful taste. I simply do not believe that if I gave it 60 cents it would use it to save the life of a child. Like most charities these days, it has other priorities that it was set up to serve.

In fact, UNICEF is the greatest mass poisoner of children in world history. It employed the comparatively old-fashioned poison of arsenic that practically no poisoner uses nowadays. The last mass poisoning by arsenic that I know of, though I am no expert, was in Manchester, England, in about 1900, when arsenic-tainted sulfuric acid was used in the manufacture of beer and about 6,000 people suffered arsenic poisoning. Forty years before that, not far away in Bradford, a confectioner adulterated his peppermints with white arsenic (which was cheaper, apparently, than peppermint cream) and sixty children died.

These were trifling affairs by comparison with UNICEF’s great effort, greater than that of the Manchester brewery by at least a thousand times. Like the brewer and the confectioner, UNICEF had no malicious intent, but as we all know intention and effect are not always quite the same. Indeed, they are often opposite.

In Bangladesh, UNICEF correctly observed that diarrheal diseases were killing a lot of children. In all poor countries diarrheal diseases caused by a contaminated water supply are among the most prolific killers of children, and UNICEF decided to give Bangladesh clean water. It sank millions of tube wells so that Bangladeshis should henceforth drink clean groundwater.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, much of the groundwater, clean enough bacteriologically, was contaminated with arsenic. This was natural rather than added by someone with wicked intent; but the result was that millions of Bangladeshis were poisoned by it. Chronic arsenic poisoning is an unpleasant condition and is even fatal in the long term. It is carcinogenic, and cancer rates began to rise in the country.


Nothing like it has been seen before. It is true that some people have attributed the downfall of the Roman Empire to the lead poisoning of the population caused by the lead water pipes, but this is not a generally accepted theory and in any case was a long time ago. UNICEF’s arsenic water makes the Syrian efforts seem bungling and amateurish.

Well, we all make mistakes, even if not quite on this scale. And none of us likes to admit our mistakes; UNICEF certainly didn’t. On the contrary, it was reluctant to accept the evidence of the arsenic poisoning long after the evidence was irrefutable: Its intentions have been too good for so unfortunate an effect. By the time UNICEF admitted its mistake, no one (outside Bangladesh, that is) cared.

Now when you look on UNICEF’s website you find that it is engaged on really good work on behalf of the country’s children: It is chemically decontaminating more than a million wells there. I am reminded of a line in the song by Flanders and Swann: “Oh it all makes work for the working man to do.”

What is absent from the website (at least from the two pages at which I looked) was any acknowledgement of why the wells needed chemical decontamination and whose idea it had been to sink them in the first place. The impression was given that UNICEF was conferring an inestimable benefit upon the country out of the generosity of its heart, rather than repairing the damage it had done.

Bangladesh may have returned the compliment to the world, or at least to a small and vulnerable part of it, namely Haiti, a country that I love. Alas, Haiti has been the site of the largest and most deadly epidemic of cholera in the last fifty years at least. Some researchers have suggested that the origin of the cholera germ responsible for this outbreak was—Bangladesh. And Bangladeshi soldiers and policemen were sent to Haiti by the United Nations to keep the peace. If they really did spread cholera, they did not mean to, any more than UNICEF meant to poison the children of Bangladesh. Moreover, I must stress that by no means everyone accepts the theory of a Bangladeshi origin of the epidemic.

All the same, I did not contribute to UNICEF. In fact, I wanted to harangue the passengers on the plane as to why they should not give. But I kept silent. After all, the moral of my story is that one should not try to do good without knowing what one is doing.



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