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Corporate donors needed (stat!) to solve World Health Organization’s budget woes

Updated Nov. 14 2011, 12:05pm

Private sector donors have been controversial for the embattled World Health Organization. But one counter-intuitive suggestion says, Don’t forgo corporate donors; just find more of them.

Flickr, Public Domain Photos

Journalist Sonia Shah outlines that recommendation in a Foreign Affairs article detailing how private groups — from the mining, soft-drink and pharmaceutical industries — have been able to manipulate the global health agenda to suit their interests.

WHO financing from member states has virtually run dry and the agency has “nowhere else to turn,” she writes, noting this stark reality:

“Private interests now bankroll four out of every five dollars of the WHO’s budget.” (editor’s note – Sonia Shah modified her statement:)

“Most telling is the fact that voluntary contributions from private interests and others now bankroll four out of every five dollars of the WHO’s budget.”

(By this, Shah means 80-percent comes from all donations combined, which includes private companies, NGO’s and governments who make voluntary, additional donations, beyond their annual dues.)

As far as privatization of global health funding goes, the genie is out of the lamp, says Shah, who is the author of several global health books. So the answer is to recruit more private sector involvement “to include those companies whose financial interests directly align with those of global health.” She writes:

In addition to mining companies, the fight against malaria could, for example, include insurance companies and tourism operators who will reap long-term profits from healthier customers and less fearful tourists. … Private companies like these, with health-aligned business interests, are much more likely to realize the promise of private-public partnerships than those that have damages to hide. 

This certainly isn’t the first call for WHO reform, and conflicts of interest in global health are well documented. Most members of the global health community tend to think there’s a need for change. Humanosphere explained some of the complaints last spring, when Corporate Accountability International, which represents 100 organizations from 24 countries, claimed the WHO has been compromising its independence and mission of improving global health.

But as Nandini Oomman of the Center for Global Development, observed in a blog post on the topic, only a few groups have been especially outspoken on the topic.

Shah’s piece comes just after the agency’s special session on reform in Geneva, which resulted in the approval of staff cuts and transfers for some personnel to less expensive areas.

In an email, Shah pointed to the work of bed-net manufacturers in anti-malaria partnerships, and the involvement of exercise companies in anti-obesity campaigns, as models for the sort of public-private partnerships she suggests — which are aligned with the WHO’s mission.

It’s up to NGO’s and public sector actors to advocate and get these types of partnerships going. “I don’t think the incentives are necessarily strong enough to get them there on their own, at least not yet,” she wrote.

Deeper woes than financial: an identity crisis

This public-private partnership model is an interesting recommendation for solving the WHO’s funding crisis. Ultimately, however, the fundamental problem might lie elsewhere.

“This financial condition is only a symptom of the real crisis that has been brewing over the last decade: What is WHO’s role in a changing world?” Oomman wrote in her post.

Jack Chow, a former assistant director-general on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria at the WHO, also described funding as just one of many problems ailing the agency. In a December 2010 Foreign Policy piece, Chow said the agency’s “myriad dysfunctions” are rendering it “closer and closer to irrelevancy in the world of global health,” and suggested the WHO “move away from the region-centric approach.”

Chow acknowledged that the WHO “cannot remain underfunded,” but concluded that “for the WHO to be revived as the world’s foremost health authority, it now needs intensive therapy itself.”

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