Civil society groups protest WHO move to give Gates Foundation official role
About 30 civil society groups from 16 countries have protested against what they see as a lack of transparency in the proposal to admit the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into “official relations” with the WHO and as a non-voting member of its governing body, the World Health Assembly.
An open letter to WHO’s executive board (EB) pointed out that several conflicts of interests of the foundation were not acknowledged in the budget’s financial contributor database. The meeting of WHO’s Programme, Budget and Administration Committee, which has to make recommendations to the executive board on official relations status for various non-state actors, was held from January 18-20.
The WHO’s register of nonstate actors — organisations with significant influence but not belonging to any country — merely noted the foundation had “engagements with Approx 25% of the Gates Foundation Trust assets are invested in Berkshire Hathaway Inc a holding company that owns $17 billion share in Coca-Cola and $29 billion interest in Kraft Heinz Inc. select members of the pharmaceutical…(and) food and beverage industries”. The letter pointed out that information from US’s Securities and Exchange Commission sho- wed that the source of revenue for the foundation “is heavily invested in many of the food, alcohol, and physical inactivity-related consumer products that cause or treat the crisis of preventable heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes”.
The letter urged the executive board to put off a decision on accepting the Gates Foundation or other applications for official relations status where “there has been no conflict of interest safeguard review on the record”. It further stated that it was “deeply troubling” the EB was being asked to approve applicants for official relations and verify compliance of conflict of interest safeguards without relevant proof on public record.
The foundation contributed $629 million to the WHO’s $4.5 billion two-year budget. “Making up WHO budget shortfalls with funding from major investors in food, drug, and alcohol companies (which are often headquartered in wealthy countries) further compromises the independence of the WHO,” stated the letter, ad- ding that granting Gates Foundation official status “makes a mockery of the conflict of interest safeguards purported to underpin WHO’s new ‘Framework of engagement with non-State actors (FENSA)’”. FENSA allows NGOs, international business associations and philanthropic foundations to enter into official relations with WHO.
The EB is to consider proposals of four other organisations to enter into official relations — Grand Challenges Canada, International Rescue Committee, Knowledge Ecology International, and the Fred Hollows Foundation. One of the conditions for entering into official relations is a joint work plan for collaboration between WHO and the organisation. After initially claiming there was no need to share joint action plan submitted by non-state actors, WHO secretariat has agreed to share the work plans by January 20. But that left little time for member states to analyse the documents before the EB meeting from January 23 to February 1.