Links between Corporations and Global Health Foundations Reveal Conflicts of Interest

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April 12, 2011; Source: Medical News Today | Three professors – from Harvard, the University of California San Francisco, and the London School of Hygience & Tropical Medicine – have just released a report detailing the links between food and pharmaceutical corporations and global health foundations. The study concluded that some of these linkages could amount to conflicts of interest. They examined the five largest global health foundations (Gates, Ford, Kellogg, Robert Wood Johnson, and Rockefeller) and found troubling signs:

  • In some instances, foundation board members were also on the boards of private corporations that might benefit directly or indirectly from the foundations’ grants. In others, corporate people were members of the foundations’ boards and in a position to influence the foundations’ grantmaking to benefit their corporations.
  • All five foundations had substantial endowment investments in pharmaceutical and food companies (for example, Kraft and Coca-Cola).
  • Despite their health missions, a couple actually invested directly or indirectly in tobacco companies.

Did the authors find that these foundations explicitly funneled grants to benefit corporate buddies? Did they discover backroom deals favoring some corporations and not others? Did the corporations influence the foundations’ policies and priorities? Not exactly.

The authors examined these foundations to look at potential definitional conflicts of interest, using the definition prescribed by the World Health Organization in WHO’s Roll Back Malaria Partnership:

A conflict of interest “can occur when a Partner’s ability to exercise judgment in one role is impaired by his or her obligations in another role or by the existence of competing interests. Such situations create a risk of a tendency towards bias in favor of one interest over another or that the individual would not fulfill his or her duties impartially and in the best interest of the…Partnership. A conflict of interest may exist even if no unethical or improper act results from it. It can create an appearance of impropriety that can undermine confidence in the individual, his/her constituency or organization. Both actual and perceived conflicts of interest can undermine the reputation and work of the Partnership.”

Both actual and perceived conflicts of interest can do damage to a tax-exempt foundation’s – and a profit-making corporation’s – best intentions. The authors conclude, “In an environment where private foundations influence the future direction of, for example, what programs will be introduced into a foreign community, in a manner that does not necessarily involve directorship or voting from the community-members themselves, it is reasonable to subject the decision-making processes of these entities to public debate, especially if these funds were to have otherwise been collected for public redistribution through federal taxation.”

Remember the phrase, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion?” It was said when his wife Pompeia was suspected of a dalliance with the noted rake of the time, Publius Clodius. Caesar believed his wife had nothing to do with Clodius, but he was concerned about the image that her friendship with this guy created in the minds of Romans.

Food and pharmaceutical corporations, often less than stellar actors on the national and global stage, can be just as damaging to global health foundations even if they aren’t engaged in philanthropic hanky-panky. Foundations that control billions of dollars of global health grant dollars ought to protect their reputations from being sullied by corporate partners if they want to keep the public’s trust in their tax exempt activities.—Rick Cohen

  • Alan Arthur

    Though how these particular cases played-out may indeed be problematic, we should all try to refrain from using the term “conflict of interest” as a pejorative phrase meaning behavior that is automatically immoral or illegal. It is not. It is how we deal with, or don’t deal with, a conflict – or potential conflict – that may be immoral or illegal.
    Thank you.

  • rick cohen

    Hi Alan: Thanks for the comment. It would be great if you could clarify your point. Are you taking issue with the World Health Organization definition that the researchers used? Or are you saying that conflicts are “curable”, and it is the participants’ resistance to curing the conflicts that make them “immoral or illegal?” By the way, I don’t use the term “immoral” in this context. I’d prefer “unethical” rather than “immoral” as the word before “and illegal.”