The Use and Abuse of the Phrase “Global Public Good”

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Photo by Miroslav Petrasko

A flawed understanding of the concept of “public good” hampers the fight for equitable access to the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine

The term “global public good” has been used in very different ways by policy makers, economists and others. The term “global” is not particularly controversial, and in this context is generally understood to involve cases where the benefits of the service or good impact residents of more than one country, even if not necessarily the whole world. The term “public good” is subject to more diverse uses, often depending upon one’s educational or professional training.

For many people, perhaps most, the term “public good” is loosely defined to include cases where governments are willing to undertake measures to expand access, with universal access at least an aspirational goal. However, among the other influential definitions of “public good” is one that is exceptionally restrictive. A proposal by Paul Samuelson first published in 1954, meant at the time as an extreme and polar case, has found its way into countless articles, textbooks and academic courses, and has parameters that are rarely met in practice. At times, Samuelson’s 66-year-old paper is actually an obstacle to collective efforts to supply and distribute goods that have considerable impact on society.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an astonishing global challenge regarding the control of the pandemic and the reduction of harm. The health impacts are large, particularly for older patients, and growing unpredictably, and the pandemic has had an enormous social and economic impact on everyone, with no obvious end in sight.Read More »

Trade for Human Rights as a Minimum Core Obligation

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In his report on the Minimum Core Doctrine (MCD) John Tasioulas states:

“the essence of the concept will be taken to be the sub-set of obligations associated with socio-economic rights that must be immediately complied with in full (obligations of immediate effect)” (p. 3).

He contrasts these against those obligations that require significant resources and are therefore subject to ‘progressive realization’. Thus, the defining characteristic of MCD is that it differentiates obligations between those of immediate effect and those of progressive realization. And the focus is on the nature of the obligations (what the state must do when) rather than the nature of substantive rights (the condition of people’s lives).

However, the discussion about what constitutes minimum core obligations in substance focuses on the nature of rights enjoyment and a package of minimum goods and services that would be required rather than the nature of obligations. This starts with General Comment 3 that refers to ‘a minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights’, and to the provision of ‘essential primary health care’ (ICESCR quoted in Tasioulas p. 5). Further, human rights-based practice begins to specify specific types of diseases to be treated and goods and services that would be included in the minimum, as under the ‘selective primary health care model’ adopted by UNICEF (Tasioulas p. 5).Read More »

UN report on access to medicines is an opportunity for sustainable solutions

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September’s UN special session on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) was a vivid reminder of the shared responsibility of governments to promote research and development (R&D) combat global health threats. The complexity of the AMR threat made clear that a combination of market forces, policy incentives, and regulation, as well as norms and standards was needed to ensure innovation that would deliver accessible and affordable treatments.

The report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines offers an important opportunity for national governments, UN organizations, philanthropies, civil society, and pharmaceutical manufacturers to move forwards and address this challenge. AMR is just the latest global health priority that cannot be resolved with the current incentive system for investing in medical R&D. AMR threatens to render a whole range of treatments ineffective and reverse 20th century advances in medicine. Numerous other health priorities are neglected because they do not present a business potential for investment, and millions of people lack access to medicines and treatments that are priced out of reach.

In a world of unprecedented medical advances, these unmet needs present a moral dilemma, and one of the most critical challenges for humanity. The Panel, on which I had the privilege to serve, makes a number of concrete proposals to promote needs-driven R&D financing and to expand access to medicines for people in need. As a whole, the report makes short-term and long-term recommendations towards introducing more systematic and sustainable approaches to meeting unmet needs in innovation and access.

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