Melinda Gates addresses the World Health Assembly: Civil Society registers its protest
We the undersigned organizations express our strong protest against the decision of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to invite Melinda Gates (of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – BMGF) as the keynote speaker at the 67th World Health Assembly, that begun in Geneva on 19th May. This is the third time in the last 10 years that someone from the BMGF and of the family has been an invited speaker at the WHA (Melinda Gates was preceded by her husband Bill Gates, in 2005 and 2011). Ms.Melinda Gates’ credentials as a leader in public health are unclear.
It is unacceptable that the WHO, supposedly governed by sovereign nation states, should countenance that at its annual global conference, the keynote address would be delivered thrice in ten years by individuals from the same private organization, and from the same family.
The BMGF is the second largest funder of the WHO. It has come to occupy this place over the past two decades, because of the freeze on assessed contributions by member states. Currently, 80% of WHO’s finances come from voluntary contributions (including from countries and from private sources) and BMGF’s funding is ‘tied’ to projects that the foundation has an interest in funding.
BMGF’s munificence towards the WHO as well as towards many other global health causes is well known. Less well known is the Foundation’s investment policies that are clearly in conflict with global health.
BMGF’s policies and practices are in conflict with global health
Despite the strong influence the BMGF exerts on global health policies, the effect of the policies it promotes has never been evaluated. This lack of accountability is based on the false premise that private foundations are not publicly accountable. This overlooks the fact that these foundations intervene in public life through political power they exert as a result of their financial clout; are publicly subsidized through tax exemptions; and reinforce the notion that inequity can be addressed through charity.
The Foundation’s corporate stock endowment is heavily invested in food industry (many of them under scrutiny for promoting unhealthy lifestyles), directly and indirectly. The Foundation holds significant shares in McDonald’s (10 million shares -- about 4% of the Gates’ portfolio), and Coca-Cola (0.34 million shares, 14% of the Foundation’s portfolio).
Previously it invested heavily in pharmaceutical companies. In 2009 it sold extensive pharmaceutical holdings in Johnson & Johnson (2.5 million shares), Schering-Plough Corporation (14.9 million shares), Eli Lilly and Company (about 1 million shares), Merck & Co. (8.1 million shares), and Wyeth (3.7 million shares)[i][ii]. Several people associated with the Foundation are currently or were previously members of the boards or executive branches of several major food and pharmaceutical companies, including Coca-Cola, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, General Mills and Kraft[iii].
The blurring of the boundaries between the Foundation’s objectives and its portfolio investment is evident in Foundation grants that encourage communities in developing countries to become business affiliates of Coca-Cola, in which the Foundation has substantial holdings. The Foundation held stock in Merck at a time when it developed partnerships with the African Comprehensive AIDS and Malaria Partnership and the Merck Company Foundation to test Merck products.
CSOs Demands Accountability from WHO
It is not possible, given the numerous conflict of interest issues that are at stake, to view the invitation to Ms. Melinda Gates as a routine move. It would appear that the WHO Secretariat is more beholden to private donors than to the member states, that it is constitutionally mandated to serve.
We demand that:
- The WHO to draw up a transparent mechanism for inviting speakers to the WHA in future.
- The WHO clarify the criteria based on which Melinda Gates has been invited to speak at the WHA.
We also urge Member States to take the lead in developing transparent and clear norms regarding such issues, and not leave the same to the discretion of the Secretariat.