Tuesday, May 19, 2015 - 05:30

The Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr. Margaret Chan has invited the private sector, civil society and academia among others, to join a dialogue on how non-state players can work with the global body to enhance public health work. A leading voice in this configuration is the United States-based Global Health Council (GHC) whose strong and spirited response to the invitation has set the cat among the pigeons in some countries (including reportedly with India) and certain sections of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

“It is my honour as representative of the Global Health Council Delegation to present the Global Health Council Delegation Members,” Dr. Christine Sow, Executive Director of the GHC said in a letter to Dr. Chan.

The letter dated May 5th 2015 has been accessed by The News Minute (TNM) and it lists over a 100 top dogs of the food and beverage sector to top universities and pharmaceutical companies. This year, the GHC has been allowed to bring over a 100 delegates. A new industry body that is keen to get official status relations with the WHO is the international Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA) representing big food corporations, Nestlé, Ferrero, Coca Cola, Mars, McDonalds and Pepsico. Sugar is a major issue of contention with some countries calling it the next tobacco that must be severely regulated in foods and beverages. Some participants in the GHC list have only partially declared their work including one who works with the alcohol industry. In principle and practice this invitation raises several ethical issues at a time when the WHO is strapped for cash.

How the WHO’s secretariat navigates the proposed new Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors is the moot point. A WHO document on how the issues speaking to non-state actors can be framed has been removed from the site.

The full text of changes to it can be read here

The WHO was not available for comment but in 2010 started the reform process (to invite non-state actors) Dr. Chan proposed that they would accept funding from private philanthropies and the commercial sector “…without compromising  independence and adding to organizational fragmentation.”

Never has the need for an organization like the WHO been more necessary. And never has the organization been spread so thin that it appears rudderless and searching for relevance. This is a budget year for the WHO. Addressing the World Health Assembly (WHA), the organisation’s apex body on Monday, the world’s most powerful political woman and a doctor by training German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in no uncertain terms that this was a time for reckoning as WHO had failed to rise to many challenges including the most recent one – Ebola.

The root of the problem is two-fold. The founders of WHO viewed good health for its intrinsic benefits and the world voted to secure a normative or standard-setting role for it in 1948. The United Nations’ (UN) chief health body was not supposed to involve itself in implementation which was the responsibility of its member-states.

The other, closer to the issue at hand is the confusion - real, propelled or feigned – about what non-state actors mean. For now, no definition has emerged has emerged adding to concerns about unequal powers including money power on the one hand and a galloping but different disease burden in the developed and developing countries. The draft framework of the resolution is yet to take a stand on how conflict of interest will be managed – or whether it should be at all – and instruments available to countries to independently conduct due diligence.

“At the Executive Board (EB) meeting last January, the Italian delegation had a member from a chocolate group in it – that is like inviting the tobacco industry or the food industry to set tobacco control laws or those relating to obesity,” Patti Rudall, Policy Director, Baby Milk Action/IBFAN, United Kingdom (UK) said. “We don’t have a solution. We are calling on the WHO to do what it was set up to do and invite others afterwards,” she added.  The EB sets the agenda for the WHA which follows in May and sources told TNM the sugar lobby was very active at the WHA.

During a preliminary discussion many countries in Africa, Latin America, Brazil and India cautioned against passing the resolution that will allow companies to enter the policy setting stadium. But 24 hours is a long time in politics and the WHO is a political organization where who-you-know matters more than WHO.