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When you say NGO, they say conflict of interest?

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn , 30-Jan-2014
Last updated on 30-Jan-2014 at 14:37 GMT

ICD said WHO is, “tending towards pulling back from collaboration with major food companies”.
ICD said WHO is, “tending towards pulling back from collaboration with major food companies”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) decision to grant NGO status to a malnutrition-battling business alliance raised eyebrows this week, so what do organisations have to do to gain and keep such a status?

WHO granted the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) NGO status after it disbanded an alliance with food and pharmaceutical firms including Coca-Cola, Cargill and GlaxoSmithKline. WHO had previously raised concerns over the nature and extent of the Alliance's link with the global food industry, a criticism some lobbyists have maintained.

John Howlett, secretary general of the Industry Council for Development (ICD), an organisation of food makers that works in the developing world and granted this special WHO status about 15 years ago, told NutraIngredients the process involved in gaining this status was a question of bureaucratic paper shuffling, but that the atmosphere surrounding this was changing.

Framework for engagement

In order to be granted NGO status, WHO requires organisations to present an outline of how its objectives are in line with its own, and how the applicant plans to implement its objectives. Once granted the status, the NGO must send a three year plan every three years detailing the objectives for the coming period as well as how the previously set objectives were fulfilled.

According to WHO’s framework for engagement with non-State actors, NGOs must demonstrate a clear benefit to public health, respect the intergovernmental nature of WHO, support and enhance the scientific and evidence-based approach that underpins WHO’s work and be actively managed so as to reduce any form of risk to WHO including conflicts of interest. WHO says overall this collaboration must be conducted on the basis of, “transparency, openness and inclusiveness”.

The health organisation also states its processes in setting norms and standards must be protected from any undue influence and that it does not engage with industries that make products directly harming human health, such as tobacco or arms.

ICD told us that an example of the objectives his organisation put forward in one of these three year reviews might be a mission of increasing resources in the areas of food safety and nutrition along with details of an annual training programme offered in South East Asia.

Paper shuffling of officialdom

Howlett said: “To my mind, it did seem a rather bureaucratic process. I was never sure someone on the other end was looking critically at it.”

He said the paperwork was often a 'copy-and-paste' from the previous year and that in the three or four renewal applications he had completed for ICD he had never felt the WHO were, “on the verge of saying it wasn’t appropriate”.

But he said the WHO appeared to be sharpening its NGO-grading claws a little.

“I do sense in the past three years WHO has become more critical,” he said. “I had the feeling they are now looking to forge closer collaborations.”

Howlett said that previously organisations could outline very broad objectives, whereas now the WHO sought more concrete day-to-day objectives.

He said WHO is, “tending towards pulling back from collaboration with major food companies”.

Profit-making logic

Baby Milk Action policy director, Patti Rundall, OBE  - a critic of the recent GAIN decision - has criticised the NGO status granted to many groups she says have overt commercial interests.

These included Croplife International (with member companies Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science, Dow Agrosciences, DuPont) the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufactures and Associations, International Life Sciences Institute (Nestlé, Coca Cola, Kellogg, Pepsi, Monsanto, Ajinomoto, Danone, General Mills and others) and the Industry Council for Development (Nestlé, Mars, Unilever and Ajinomoto) as examples.

“All are guided by market profit-making logic whose primary interest clashes with that of WHO. Their inclusion goes against WHO's current NGO policy,” she said.