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GAIN gains NGO status from WHO after it severs big business ties (or does it?)

By Shane Starling+

27-Jan-2014
Last updated the 28-Jan-2014 at 10:41 GMT

GAIN has won NGO status from the WHO to battle malnutrition, but questions remain over beneficiaries of its work...
GAIN has won NGO status from the WHO to battle malnutrition, but questions remain over beneficiaries of its work...

The World Health Organization (WHO) has granted the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) NGO status after it disbanded an alliance with food and pharma firms including Coca-Cola, Cargill and GlaxoSmithKline.

But critics have said the malnutrition-battling organisation has many questions to answer about its ongoing big business links.

In its assessment process that rolled over last year, the WHO raised questions about GAIN’s ‘Business Alliance’, stating it was concerned about, "the nature and extent of the Alliance's link with the global food industry".

After GAIN’s action it granted it NGO status at WHO’s 134th Executive Board Meeting last week. An application by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) was also approved.

The International Special Dietary Foods Industries (ISDI) was denied NGO status as the WHO said it had not, “received the deliverables expected during the collaboration period.”

SUN movements

GAIN spokesperson Nikki Lyons told us today that it shut down the Business Alliance in December last year as it was transitioning to another NGO, Scaling up Nutrition (SUN).

The SUN Business Network, which is co-facilitated by GAIN and World Food Programme, was established as part of the UN’s SUN movement, and has a primary objective to bring together the skills and resources of the private sector to meet and deliver specific nutrition objectives of SUN countries,” she said.

There were announcements about these and other projects at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week where more than 40 food companies aligned on various malnutrition-battling projects under the SUN Business Network.

Blame game…blame GAIN?

The intent is hard to fault but groups like Baby Milk Action (BMA), which promotes breast milk feeding over infant formula and food substitutes where possible, contend that the means of delivery and involvement of big business requires further scrutiny.

“Food fortification is not bad par se but it needs to be done in a regulated environment and that has not been happening and GAIN has promoted that kind of entry to markets for big food companies where people are very vulnerable,” BMA policy director, Patti Rundall, OBE, told us.

“GAIN is trying to reinvent itself but if it no longer has ties to these companies then I ask the question: What is GAIN?”

Citing recent actions in Kenya as an example of well managed nutrition interventions, she said, “We call for interaction with policy makers and for the WHO to clarify its position in regard to these hybrid organisations calling themselves NGOs.”

In a statement she added: “If WHO is to fulfil its constitutional mandate it has to develop policies that address the complexity of today’s world and protect its independence, integrity in decision-making and trustworthiness. It must not fall into the trap of confusing the ‘not-for profit’ legal status with ‘not working in the interest of profit-making.’”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation remains a major GAIN supporter.

Essential engagement?

For its part, GAIN has stated previously that it is, “essential to engage with those who actually produce and distribute foods” and it intends to continue to operate this way.

The NGO said that with a billion people hungry, 160 million children stunted and 1.4bn people overweight or obese, “we need all stakeholders involved if we are going to solve this problem.”

At the meeting, Dr Margaret Chan, WHO director general, said, "we need to make sure there is no influence in the policy space that is countries’ prerogative, or in the technical standard setting space which is the second space.”

But Rundall, who is also co-chair of IBFAN’s Global Council, said the organisation needed to walk its NGO talk.

“I hope that Dr Chan stays true to her word and develops distinct policies that will keep the NGO ‘space’ for those whose only mission is public health.” 

Amendment: This article initially stated that Croplife International had gained NGO status at the WHO meeting. In fact they already possessed this status.