21.05.2015 | Third World Network

CSOs voice concerns over corporate takeover of WHO

Published in SUNS #8025 dated 21 May 2015

Geneva, 20 May (Kanaga Raja) -- The Framework for Engagement with Non-State Actors, initiated to safeguard the independence, integrity and credibility of the World Health Organisation (WHO), now seems to bear the threat of facilitating and legitimising the corporate capture of the organisation, civil society groups have charged.

Ahead of the first meeting of the drafting group that will consider the latest draft of the framework at the current sixty-eighth World Health Assembly, some 33 civil society organisations (CSOs) and social movements called on delegates to defend the integrity, independence and democratic accountability of the WHO.

In a joint statement, the groups called on WHO Member States to take such time as is necessary to achieve a robust framework for engagement with non-state actors in order to protect the organisation from improper influence.

They also called on Member States to support the WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan's proposals to increase the assessed contributions to the organisation.

According to the groups, there is strong apprehension that the negotiations on the Framework for Engagement with Non-State Actors (FENSA) may fundamentally alter the engagement with the private sector and philanthropic foundations and NGOs sponsored by the private sector in a manner that would compromise the credibility of the WHO.

"Many proposals by rich countries in draft FENSA text is promoting corporate capture of WHO in the name of promotion of engagements without discussion on any comprehensive mechanism to avoid conflict of interest. These proposals, if accepted, would institutionalise the undue corporate influence on WHO," said Lida Lhotska of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), in a press release.

The signatories to the joint CSO statement include Alianca de Combate de Tabagismo/Brasil (ACT/Br), All India Drug Action Network, Corporate Accountability International, Diverse Women for Diversity, Health Action International (HAI), IBFAN, Medico International, NGO Forum for Health, People's Health Movement (PHM), Public Services International, Society for International Development (SID), Third World Network (TWN), Wemos, and World Social Forum on Health and Social Security.

The signatories also expressed concern that rich member-state donors have been deliberately undermining the WHO and weakening its capacity to promote global health by under-funding, tight earmarking of donor funding and opening spaces for corporate influence.

"We learned that many Member States are opposing any curb in the existing practices, which facilitate the corporate intrusion in WHO. The opposition of certain Member States to ban the Secondment from private sectors and other non-state actors as well as using the financial resources from private sector to pay the salary of WHO staff reinforces the status quo and threaten the credibility of the WHO," said K. M. Gopakumar of the Third World Network.

"The refusal of [an] increase in the assessed contribution is the technique deployed to force WHO to [be] open for corporate influence," said Dr. David Legge of the People's Health Movement.

"The compromised flexibility in financial resources forces the vulnerability of WHO to look for resources from donors with profit motives and endanger the constitutional mandate of WHO," he added.

At a media briefing here on Tuesday, Gopakumar of the Third World Network explained that on Wednesday the WHO member states are going to restart the negotiations on the framework for engagement with non-state actors, which includes NGOs, the private sector, philanthropic foundations and academic institutions.

The idea to have a set of policies to regulate the engagement with non-state actors came about as part of the WHO's governance reform programme that was launched in 2011.

He noted that many states have raised concerns about the way in which the WHO is engaging with non-state actors. There were serious concerns about conflict of interest, as well as on the credibility, integrity and independence of the WHO, based on the existing practices.

During the reform process, there was a push to have more engagement with non-state actors, and many member states raised concerns that this may compromise WHO's credibility.

However, he said, the process is now at the stage where it is showing signs of going in the opposite direction, and this may legitimise or reinforce the status quo.

According to Gopakumar, it could also bring about a further deterioration of the credibility, integrity and independence of the WHO by facilitating a greater intrusion of non-state actors, in particular the private sector and philanthropic foundations controlled by the private sector.

Ms Lhotska of IBFAN, referring to the WHO reform process, said that "we are suddenly faced with the challenge that threatens to undermine all those years of our work, and we are also very concerned that the WHO, if things go wrong, may come out of the reform, captured by the corporate actors ..."

According to Lhotska, the current draft framework further reasserts old channels of undue influence and contains new official relations policies that open up official relations not only to NGOs but to all the other so-called non-state actors.

This means that it opens up official relations to philanthropic foundations, the private sector, in particular business associations, to academia and to the NGOs, without any distinction among the NGOs who may be far more on the business side than on the public side.

"If the framework is accepted as proposed, we fear that it will lead to the loss of credibility of the WHO," she said.

Legge of the People's Health Movement underlined that the failures, such as they were, of WHO's response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak are in large part a consequence of a funding freeze which has been operating with increasing stranglement over the last 20-30 years.

Over the last 20 years, the proportion of WHO's budget which is met through mandatory assessed contributions has fallen from 75% to 20%. This is a consequence of continuing new functions being added to the organisation and a continuing freeze on assessed contributions, he said.

He pointed out that the remaining 80% is met by voluntary donations from the rich countries, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Noting that the WHO Director-General, at this World Health Assembly, has been asking for a 5% increase in assessed (mandatory) contributions, Legge said that at the Programme, Budget and Administration Committee last week, Belgium and the United Kingdom both spoke firmly against the 5% increase.

He said that the UK contributes $24 million in assessed contributions per year to the WHO, while its voluntary contributions amount to $65 million per year. And it is refusing to pay an extra $1.25 million, which is the 5% increase that the Director-General is asking for.

Belgium contributes $4.65 million in assessed contributions per year, and a 5% increase would amount to $230,000, he added.

In their joint statement, the CSOs and social movements noted that donor funds account for 80% of WHO's budget and 93% of donor funds is tightly earmarked to programmes that the donors support.

"This prevents WHO from implementing programmes that rich countries do not support, even when they are decided by the World Health Assembly. Threats of further funding cuts are held out if attempts are made to implement such programmes."

According to the joint statement, the compromised ability of the WHO to intervene effectively during the 2014 Ebola crisis is a tragic illustration of the impact of the budgetary crisis on WHO's capacity to fulfil its mandate.

Over the last four years, WHO has been through a far-reaching reform programme driven in part by arguments that the freeze on assessed (mandatory) contributions should remain in place until the organisation addresses its inefficiencies.

"Such arguments fly in the face of clear evidence that these inefficiencies are largely a function of WHO's financial crisis brought on by the freeze on assessed contributions," said the groups.

Referring to the Director-General's proposal for a 5% increase in assessed contributions, the statement said that while 5% is a relatively small increase, much less than what the big donors contribute as voluntary contributions, it is of huge symbolic value and a crucial step towards breaking the logjam of freeze on assessed contributions.

"Predictably, certain large donor countries are gearing up to oppose the increase and refuse to adopt the budget."

According to the groups, threats to health and barriers to affordable health care arise due to the commercial interests of big corporations.

The increasing incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke due to intensively marketed cheap, ultra-processed foods is a stark example.

"Pharmaceutical corporations clearly value shareholders' demand for profits over affordable access to essential medicines and vaccines. For WHO to fulfil its mandate, it must be able to name such threats and barriers and develop and implement policies and programmes to manage them."

However, said the joint statement, rich member states, the US and the UK in particular, have repeatedly opposed WHO taking any action which might run counter to the interests of transnational corporations.

Furthermore, certain rich member states are seeking to force WHO to open up its policy-making and decision-making spaces to the transnational corporations.

The civil society groups argued that proposals for "multi-stakeholder partnerships" would designate junk food manufacturers as partners in the task of addressing obesity, heart disease and stroke.

They noted that over the last two years, WHO and its member states have been locked in a contentious debate around the rules governing corporate influence over decision-making in WHO.

"Rich countries are seeking to use these rules to clear the way for transnational corporations to buy influence and insert corporate staff into strategic positions within the WHO Secretariat."

According to the joint statement, the present draft of the framework for engagement with non-state actors is contested and problematic.

"It is more important to get a good outcome than rush to adopt a document that might further legitimise corporate influence of decision-making in the WHO," said the groups.