Five reasons why you – a global health scholar – should visit the World Health Organization’s archives

By Janelle Winters

Archival research typically evokes the unexciting image of a solitary historian in large glasses, looking for obscure details of a bygone era within dusty book volumes. Yet, many modern multilateral institutions – which formulate international policies for health and agricultural interventions – have rich resources amassed within their archives and library collections. As a doctoral student in global health governance and modern health history, I have spent much of the last year discovering how to access these collections and their unique resources (see my video blogs on the archives of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Bank, and United Nations).

In this blog, which might be best described as a ‘defence of the misunderstood archives’, I present an argument for why policymakers and health researchers should make use of often neglected resources housed in archives and special collections of multilateral organizations. I use examples from my research on the contributions of the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO)’s river blindness program – the Onchocerciasis Control Programme of 1974-2002 – to global health. Admittedly, I have degrees in history, wear glasses, and enjoy hours of reading in solitude. However, I can objectively say that the memos, letters, photographs, videos, and unofficial reports that I have found in the archives have yielded much more than obscure historical details. The World Bank, United Nations, FAO, and WHO archives have given me invaluable insight into the pivotal people, perspectives, and models that drive current global health policy. Coming to you from Geneva, where I am now entrenched in the WHO archives, I give you five reasons that you should consider paying a visit to the archives of a multilateral institution:

1. Have (previously) confidential information at your fingertips: You will find confidentially circulated reports, letters, and memos, which provide insight into the real drivers of and justifications for health programmes. These kind of documents often also give perspective on how controversies or major issues were (or were not) handled. Such insight is simply not available in official published reports, and may help you identify people to interview for a better understanding of a programme or concept’s legacy today. For example, I gained a window into the complicated nature of pharmaceutical confidentiality and incentivizing drug development for tropical diseases at the WHO archives, through confidential correspondence between the WHO and pharmaceutical companies. I was also able to see tensions arising between technical bodies, like the Onchocerciasis Control Programme’s expert advisory committee and the sponsoring agencies’ steering committee, about sharing information.

A confidential letter found at the WHO Archives, addressing drug safety concerns in Sudan.

A confidential letter found at the WHO Archives, addressing drug safety concerns in Sudan.

2. Access files about closed-door institutions: Most multilateral institutions have archives accessible to the public, and these sometimes contain valuable files from closed-door institutions – like pharmaceutical companies and bilateral donors. While I dream about gaining exclusive access to the Merck & Co. pharmaceutical company archives, as part of my mission to understand the drivers of ‘philanthrocapitalism’, the chances of this happening are dismal. However, at the WHO, I found over 100 folders on the relationship between the Onchocerciasis Chemotherapy Fund, pharmaceutical companies, and drug trial protocols. These files will help me paint a vivid picture of the structure and debates surrounding a key public-private partnership for health.

3. Stumble upon visual goldmines: Archives like the WHO and World Bank have wonderful media collections, which include photographs, videos, and newsletters/magazines, and are often not searchable or available online. While the WHO has a good set of photographs available through its digital photo library, copies of its complete set of World Health magazine (from the 1950s-late 1990s) – plus a very useful magazine index – are available in multiple languages in the onsite library. The World Health magazine has helped me understand how disease control programmes were sold to donors and the public through symbolic ‘visual politics’, and how they were marshalled by staff to justify their health policy approaches.

Examples of photographs and headlines depicting the impact of the Onchocerciasis Control Programme in the WHO's World Health magazine.

Examples of photographs and headlines depicting the impact of the Onchocerciasis Control Programme in the WHO's World Health magazine.

4.  Encounter unexpected resources: You may be the first person to look at some files at the archives, and may find resources you never would have thought to look for in the library stacks. When patrolling the WHO library stacks, for instance, I found a set of locally circulated magazines of the WHO African Regional Office (AFRO) secretariat, which detailed health events and local programmes in Ghana, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire and other countries in my region of focus. At the World Bank, I was also the first person ever to view many of their folders on Onchocerciasis Control Programme donors and African country devolution plans. This means that my research is relying on truly novel sources.

A 1994 WHO newsletter for Ghana, with details of local health events, found in the WHO library.

A 1994 WHO newsletter for Ghana, with details of local health events, found in the WHO library.

5. Gain perspective from past health approaches: Understanding the historical drivers, debates, metrics, and outcomes of health programmes can help policy-makers replicate successful approaches and attempt to avoid common pitfalls. Current health policies, like that of the WHO for the Zika epidemic, do not operate in a vacuum; they are the product of institutional ideologies, political pressures, financing systems, and disease conceptualizations. The archives provide critical tools to help researchers dissect these policy drivers. For example, I am currently analysing how community-driven models for mass drug administration (MDA) were formed by the WHO and World Bank for onchocerciasis. Such analysis will shed light on assumptions that have driven MDA delivery, which may have implications for its effectiveness today.

All photographs were taken by the author at the WHO Headquarters library in Geneva, Switzerland in March 2017. Many thanks to WHO archivist Reynald Erard for his guidance and support.