Capacity Building Workshop on Conflict of Interest in London, UK

“Sponsorship is a hard-nosed business decision undertaken with positive ends in mind and with the intention of obtaining a proportionate return to the sponsor for the money invested (Sedgwick, 1985).”
Conflict of interest (CoI) stems from a conflict between two or more conflicting or divergent interests within a person, an organization, or an institution of trust. It usually involves the conflict(s) between a fiduciary duty (e.g. for an individual or organisation responsible for public health to promote breastfeeding) and a private or secondary interest (e.g. to promote formula-feeding because of benefits received from industry). In the context of infant and young child feeding, conflicts of interest do not only apply to health professionals. It may arise for anyone (including a non-professional health worker or health educator) or any organisation (e.g. hospitals, NGOs, or government agencies) responsible for promoting optimal infant and young child feeding when they accept gifts or funding from baby food industry. Common examples include acceptance of gifts, payment for attendance of lectures and conferences, samples, funding for health programmes, and grants for research projects. On broader scales, the World Bank, UN agencies, and a number of governments have been engaging in public-private partnerships, in which the private sector (including corporate philanthropic foundations) always has a share in the decision making process on public interests and policies.

Growing awareness on the link between sponsorship and CoI, and how that can compromise the health profession and public health interests has resulted in several WHA resolutions on the subject. CoI manifests itself in a myriad of different forms. Sponsorship is a common way for corporations to get their names linked to health workers, prestigious institutions, and public health events for public image and relations, and ultimately, business. It is also a way to weaken Code provisions. Through sponsorships and specifically public-private partnerships on broader levels (e.g. national or international public health programmes that are closely tied to public policy), corporations try to become a “stakeholder” of the public health decision-making body to steer policies to their own benefits. Corporate sponsorship may come in the form of:

  • sponsorship for health professionals and professional associations
  • sponsorship for seminars, symposia, study tours, and conferences
  • sponsorship for scientific and academic researches, and
  • using sponsorship to develop public-private partnerships

IBFAN as a network has advocated on strengthening safeguards on CoI through legislative and policy measures. With corporations gaining a foothold in the public health arena in various ways that give rise to COI, IBFAN saw the urgency to step up the collective effort to put up appropriate CoI safeguards. Thus on 7th to 9th December, a capacity building workshop was held at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, London. Co-organised by IBFAN Asia, IBFAN-GIFA Geneva, and IBFAN UK; participants included IBFAN representatives from all regions and global offices, together with representatives from Corporate Europe Observatory, Belgium and FIAN International, Germany (formerly FoodFirst Information and Action Network).

Led by Dr. Judith Richter and Professor Marc Rodwin, the workshop explored the challenges of identifying and adequately addressing CoI through dialogues and presentations from various participants. It examined problematic areas such as corporate influence on standards setting (e.g. WHO, Codex Alimentarius, FAO Commission on Food Security), funding of research, close relations with corporate actors under the partnership/stakeholder/non-state actor paradigm (on UN, global, regional, and national levels).

Constance Ching, the Programme Manager for IBFAN-ICDC, presented a paper on “Corporate sponsorship and CoIs: How serious is the impact of corporate sponsorship on the capacity and will to regulate? Some lessons from the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)”. The presentation reflected on the impact of corporate sponsorship and CoI and drew parallels and identify lessons that can be borrowed from the FCTC for policies on infant and young child feeding. The workshop also included a half-day symposium that was attended by a number of public health professionals outside of the IBFAN network, co-sponsored by the School of Law and Social Justice, Liverpool University.

It was also envisioned that the workshop would be a part of an ongoing effort to identify elements of a CoI ‘toolkit’ for addressing CoI and undue influences in the field of health and nutrition. Through providing stronger foundational knowledge on identifying and safeguarding against CoI, both the workshop and the toolkit are of great help to aid the work of our member groups.