On 19 March 1979, a group of medical students set up the Werkgroep Medische Ontwikkelingssamenwerking (Working Group on Medical Development Cooperation), or Wemos. The students realized that sending Dutch doctors to low-income countries was not a long-term solution to the health problems in these countries and wanted to come up with better alternatives. Wemos started out as a volunteer organization, organizing informal meetings and alternative lectures and producing information folders.

A subsidy amount of 10,000 guilders was raised in 1981 for the conference on ‘Health and Politics in Developing Countries’. Almost 1000 participants attended this conference, which had to be spread over two days due to the room capacity. As a result, the Wemos foundation was formally established with the aim of “raising awareness of the side effects, secondary effects and usefulness of Western healthcare in third-world countries”.

Our 40th anniversary video illustrates how Wemos has grown into an international advocate for global health over the past 40 years:

Below, you can read more about the history of a small organization with large ambitions for a healthy world.

The early years

In the 1980s, Wemos focused on three themes:

  • the position of women in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in respect of family planning and population policies;
  • the policy of the Dutch government and private institutions in the area of medical development cooperation;
  • the supply of medicines and the “third world”.

Success in the Organon case (1983-1984)

Wemos had one of its biggest successes in the early years in 1983, with a campaign against the pharmaceutical company Organon. This company sold anabolic steroids (Orgabolin) in Bangladesh and Kenya to treat malnourished children. ‘But, malnourished children just need food. It’s highly unethical to give such harmful substances in the event of famine,” says Wilbert Bannenberg, one of the founders of Wemos. Organon was also providing incomplete and incorrect information. Together with Ivan Wolffers, Wemos wrote the book ‘Druppels tegen de armoede’ (Droplets against poverty). Wemos lodged a complaint with the Dutch Pharmaceutical Industry Association (NEFARMA). In its 1984 verdict, the Code Committee agreed with Wemos and ordered Organon to provide the same information outside the Netherlands as it did in the Netherlands. The campaign generated a great deal of publicity and, according to the director of Organon at that time, even ‘contributed to raising awareness of these problems.’

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly adopted a motion in 1984: development funds could only be used to finance ‘essential medicines’. At the end of the 1980s, Wemos changed its policy and focused on ‘information and lobbying in the fields of health, politics and the Third World’. Wemos sold books and publications that were not available elsewhere and lent out videos and slide shows. It also published the ‘WEMOS bulletin: tijdschrift voor Medische Ontwikkelingssamenwerking’ (WEMOS bulletin: journal for Medical Development Cooperation), the only Dutch-language journal that covered healthcare in low- and middle-income countries (then referred to as ‘the Third World’) from a broad perspective. It had a print run of 800 copies, 650 of which were sent to regular subscribers.

Developments in the 1990s

New North-South contradictions demanded a revised mission in the early 1990s. Among other things, Wemos focused on equal access to healthcare globally and raising awareness in the North of health impacts for people in the South. Wemos also stimulated the critical discussion on medical development cooperation and advocacy with regard to governments, private organisations and industry in the North. The lobbying activities moved more towards the European level.

A few highlights from this period

  • 1993: together with sister organisations from the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), Wemos implemented an advertising ban on bottle feeding in the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
  • 1996: Wemos coordinated ‘Towards a Better Quality of Drug Donations’, an awareness campaign about drug donations to low-income countries. As a result, more Dutch doctors stopped donating harmful medicines and instead followed the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
  • 1997: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs adopted the Guidelines for Drug Donations and the Dutch government implemented the ‘International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.’
  • 1998: the 50th World Medical Health Assembly unanimously adopted the ‘Improved Investment in Healthcare’ resolution, drawn up by Wemos in collaboration with the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).

Wemos in the 21st century

Around the turn of the century, the focus shifted to new themes:

  • Healthy trade
  • Health in national strategies for poverty reduction
  • Financing for health

Wemos worked on these themes by carrying out lobbying, conducting campaigns, and seeking collaboration with organizations from low- and middle-income countries.

Some of the successes in these years

  • 2000: Wemos and the Evert Vermeer Foundation organised a political debate on the recruitment of nurses from the Philippines and South Africa. As a result, the Dutch parliament rejected international recruitment on ethical grounds by a majority.
  • 2002: the UN Conference on Ageing included a number of Wemos’ proposals in its ‘International Action Plan on Ageing’, including the gender approach and the importance of mental health.
  • 2009: Bolivia incorporated the right to health into its constitution thanks to the joint lobbying of Accion Internacional por la Salud and Wemos.
  • 2009: thanks to our lobbying, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced better monitoring of compliance with ethical guidelines in clinical trials on subjects outside Europe.

Repositioning from 2010 onwards: ‘Health for All’ advocate

In 2010, Wemos repositioned itself as an advocate of global health. Its main task was to influence policies to promote public health. As a result, it moved away from supporting partner organizations and conducting public campaigns. International networks became more important to our work, initially as sources of information and later as lobbying partners. We mainly focused on the Dutch government, the European Union, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the WHO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

  • 2012: the EMA published guidelines for the ethical testing of drug trials. These highlighted the substantive lobbying points deployed by Wemos in recent years.
  • 2013-2016: during this period, we issued research reports on unethical abuses in clinical trials in India, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt and Zimbabwe. Thanks to our lobbying and our contribution to a report about the EMA, the EMA is now required to report annually on actions it takes to ensure that medicines from low- and middle-income countries that enter the EU market have been ethically tested.
  • 2015: following lobbying by Wemos, the European Commission conducted research into the added therapeutic value of new medicines.
  • 2015: the House of Representatives adopted a motion for research into possible measures against endocrine-disrupting substances and information for pregnant women on this subject.
  • 2016: in early 2016, the Health Systems Advocacy (HSA) Partnership was established, a strategic partnership in which Wemos joined forces with Amref Flying Doctors, the African Centre for Global Health and Social Transformation (Achest), Health Action International (HAI) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (financing partner). The partnership focuses on strengthening healthcare systems to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.
  • 2016: together with partner organisations from the Health Workers 4 All project, Wemos made policy recommendations for sustainable policies for healthcare personnel, such as tackling the shortage of health workers in Europe. These recommendations were included in the WHO report Joint Action Plan on Health Workforce Planning & Forecasting.

Celebrating 40 years of Wemos

On March 19th 2019, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first Wemos meeting. On September 6th 2019, we celebrated this anniversary at our congress ‘Global health: everybody’s concern, everybody’s business’. Have a look at this article for a summary.


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