Document Type: Original Article
Global Health Policy Unit, Social Policy, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
SPECTRUM Consortium (Shaping Public Health Policies to Reduce Inequalities and Harm), London, UK
Department of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health, Pan-American Health Organization/World Health Organization, Washington, DC, USA
With multi-stakeholder approaches central to efforts to address global health challenges, debates around conflict of interest (COI) are increasingly prominent. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently developed a proposed tool to support member states in preventing and managing COI in nutrition policy. We analysed responses to an online consultation to explore how actors from across sectors understand COI and the ways in which they use this concept to frame the terms of commercial sector engagement in health governance.
Submissions from 44 Member States, international organisations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions and commercial sector actors were coded using a thematic framework informed by framing theory. Respondents’ orientation to the tool aligned with two broad frames, ie, a ‘collaboration and partnership’ frame that endorsed multi-stakeholder approaches and a ‘restricted engagement’ frame that highlighted core tensions between public health and food industry actors.
Responses to the WHO tool reflected contrasting conceptualisations of COI and implications for health governance. While most Member States, NGOs, and academic institutions strongly supported the tool, commercial sector organisations depicted it as inappropriate, unworkable and incompatible with the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Commercial sector respondents advanced a narrow, individual-level understanding of COI, seen as adequately addressed by existing mechanisms for disclosure, and viewed the WHO tool as unduly restricting scope for private sector engagement in nutrition policy. In contrast, health-focused NGOs and several Member States drew on a more expansive understanding of COI that recognised scope for wider tensions between public health goals and commercial interests and associated governance challenges. These submissions mostly welcomed the tool as an innovative approach to preventing and managing such conflicts, although some NGOs sought broader exclusion of corporate actors from policy engagement.
Submissions on the WHO tool illustrate how contrasting positions on COI are central to understanding broader debates in nutrition policy and across global health governance. Effective health governance requires greater understanding of how COI can be conceptualised and managed amid high levels of contestation on policy engagement with commercial sector actors. This requires both ongoing innovation in governance tools and more extensive conceptual and empirical research.