September 22, 2013

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: “€œOh 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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