Industry, NGOs On Staff At WHO? Beware Of Revolving Doors, Some Say

The agreement found last year after months of intense discussion to avert the possibility of undue influence by outside actors at the World Health Organization is yet to be fully implemented. The World Health Assembly last week looked at progress and the process by which the WHO can temporarily welcome on its staff individuals from the private sector, civil society, philanthropic foundations, and academic institutions. Some countries questioned principles in this process but were told by the WHO that their comments would merely be recorded.

The annual World Health Assembly took place from 22-31 May.

The WHA noted a report [pdf] by the secretariat on progress achieved on the implementation of the Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors (FENSA).

No revolving door at WHO?

The framework was adopted in May 2016 after months of intergovernmental negotiations, and is sometimes referred to as an example to be followed by other United Nations agencies, on the principle of transparency. FENSA was hailed when adopted by WHO members (IPW, WHO, 30 May 2016), but the criteria for secondments of non-state actors in WHO met with some criticism.

According to the WHO, a secondment to WHO “is the assignment to WHO of an individual already employed by an entity, for a fixed period, under a tri-partite secondment agreement concluded by WHO, the releasing entity and the employee. Secondees return to the releasing entity at the end of their secondment. While on secondment, secondees are WHO staff members.”

According to the report, the secretariat is on track to fully implement FENSA in the two-year timeframe that was agreed upon last year. The WHO register of non-state actors is currently being piloted and rolled out, the report says. The framework is expected to be evaluated in 2019.

WHO members were also asked to consider Criteria and principles [pdf] for secondments from nongovernmental organizations, philanthropic foundations and academic institutions.

What Happened to ‘Sensitive’ Positions?

The subject of non-state actors was addressed by Committee B, one of the two WHA committees, on 26 May. Brazil noted that the proposed criteria and principles do not include the notion of “sensitive” positions. The 2016 WHA resolution specifies that criteria and principles should take into account a list of identified issues. One of them is “specific technical expertise needed and excluding managerial and/or sensitive positions.” The language in the proposed criteria and principles should match the 2016 WHA resolution, the delegate said.

India concurred and added that the proposed principles indicate that “managerial and/or position that involve the validation or approval of WHO’s norms and standards are excluded,” but that such positions need to be identified more explicitly.

The delegate further said that the principles specify that proposed arrangements for secondments will undergo a due diligence and risk assessment, but the process for this is not elaborated, opening the way to subjective interpretation and application.

The document, he said, does not list the procedures of identification of any actual or perceived conflicts of interests and gaps in details may leave staff confused in the application of the criteria and provide insufficient due diligence and risk assessment.

Egypt supported Brazil and India, and asked that the language discrepancy between the 2016 WHA resolution and the proposed criteria and principles be corrected. Bolivia, Ecuador and Pakistan also supported Brazil and India. Ecuador requested a clear answer from the secretariat.

The Egyptian delegate said that the document includes a condition requiring the secondment position to “have been granted a waiver of competitive selection by the Director-General, providing justification for the position.” This language is in violation of the 2016 WHA resolution, he said, which requires “transparency and clarity regarding positions sought, including public announcements.”

EU Says No Revolving Doors, US Warns Against Subjectivity

Malta, on behalf of the European Union and some candidate countries, expressed “a note of caution” regarding the possibility of secondment becoming a revolving door allowing seconded staff to become contracted staff.

Zimbabwe also underlined the importance of “shutting revolving doors between the private sector, the governments, and philanthropic foundations.”

“There are several instances where individuals who worked in industries that undermine public health joined the WHO in senior positions,” the Zimbabwe delegate said. “Such individuals should be subjected to a cooling period before joining the WHO.”

She further said that when NGOs, philanthropic foundations, and other institutions are “heavily financed by the private sector, secondments from them should be prohibited.”

The United States voiced concern that the implementation of FENSA, through the criteria and principles, could further restrict some non-governmental organisations and private sector engagement “on suspicion of some sort of unsatisfactory relationship, instead of FENSA rules and procedures.” The delegate asked WHO to refrain from a “cavalier approach” to non-state actors.

WHO Answers, Language Discrepancy Only Noted in Record

Ian Smith, executive director of the Director-General’s Office, said that the criteria and principles were presented after consultation with member states, and were presented at the Budget and Administration Committee of the Executive Board, and at the Executive Board in January.

Ian Smith, executive director of the WHO Director-General’s Office

He said the WHO was aware of the need to be clear on what is considered a sensitive position and it has not been explicitly explained in FENSA. The WHO took the position that sensitive positions are primarily positions which involve sensitive information, which might be proprietary, sensitive, and/or related to WHO norms and standards settings, he said. He added that greater clarity should be provided going forward.

The WHO Human Resources Department director sought to reassure member states, explaining all the safeguards in place so that individuals cannot be hired after or during secondment through a back door. She added that in 2019, when “mobility is mandatory,” most of the international fixed-term positions will be advertised through a compendium, for rotation purposes, and in that context seconded staff are not eligible for applying for positions issued in the compendium.

“There will be a very reduced opportunity for seconded staff to be re-absorbed in the organisation,” she said.

After Brazil said it does not seem right to ignore substantive comments made by member states by merely noting the document, supported by Somalia, the WHO legal counsel said the comments will be recorded in the summary record of the WHA.

Non-State Actors, FENSA Interpretation

The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) said, “Through ill-defined terms such as ‘partnership’ ‘stake-holder’ and ‘trust’ corporations and philanthropies are now claiming the right to participate and shape public health decision-making processes, sidelining governments, the UN and peoples’ human rights.”

The IBFAN representative underlined in her statement the recent acceptance of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s application for official relations with WHO, and said FENSA failed the test. The foundation’s contributions to many health initiatives are public record, she said, and its influence on WHO’s nutrition policy-setting no secret. Less well-known, she said, are Gates Foundation’s “substantial investments in food and beverage industries.” The acceptance of the foundation in January was opposed by some civil society and health groups (IPW, WHO, 29 January 2017).

NGO Medicus Mundi said FENSA contains “inadequate details” about transparency and oversight mechanisms, risk assessment and management, and classification and evaluation of non-state actors’ commercial interests. Medicus Mundi also voiced concerns in its statement, about possible revolving doors, and supported countries asking why the term “sensitive” disappeared from the criteria and principles.

FENSA only regulates the WHO’s engagement with non-state actors, the representative said, but “leaves member states free to advance public sector entities’ interests through the governing bodies, financing dialogues, and behind closed doors.”

The Global Health Council, of which WHO is a partner, in its statement cautioned against an interpretation of FENSA which could be “overly cautious or punitive.”

“The Global Health Council supports WHO’s efforts to develop guidance that clarifies engagement with non-state actors. As part of that process, we welcome ongoing dialogue with civil society that considers both risk and rewards associated with partnerships. We also encourage WHO to consult other UN agencies that more effectively engage civil society. Doing so diminishes motivation for civil society to partner with WHO, and causes non-state actors to be inappropriately influenced in their strategic relationships and activities,” the representative said.


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