The WHO Foundation in global health governance: Depoliticizing corporate philanthropy

Rob Ralston*, Tracey Wagner-Rizvi, May CI van Schalkwyk, Nason Maani, Jeff Collin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The creation of the WHO Foundation during the COVID-19 pandemic represents a significant institutional development in the politics of financing the World Health Organization (WHO). In the context of longstanding acute financial pressures, the objective of the WHO Foundation is to widen WHO's resource base by attracting philanthropic donations from the commercial sector. In placing funding decisions ‘at one remove’ from WHO, the stated expectation is that the WHO Foundation will act as an intermediary, insulating the WHO from potential conflicts of interest and reputational risk through a combination of strategic distance from WHO and proximity with its norms and rules of engagement with non-state actors. Yet, whether this model has translated into practice remains understudied. In this article, we focus on emerging institutional practices within the WHO Foundation, highlighting a drift from its stated governance model. Based on analysis of WHO Foundation documents, we demonstrate how due diligence and transparency practices within the Foundation have been redesigned in ways that contradict or subvert its claims to applying alignment with WHO's governance norms, notably relating to its engagement with health harming industries such as alcohol and petrochemical companies. While this situation may seem paradoxical, we argue that, in placing funding decisions ‘at one remove’ from the formal institutions and structures of WHO, the creation of the Foundation has served to displace this issue to a more secluded arena where drifts in practice are less exposed to political oversight and scrutiny. Focusing on the discursive aspects of this process of depoliticisation, we contend that the Foundation has strategically managed ‘fictional expectations’ of accountable and transparent governance in order to mitigate concerns about its mandate and functions. This assessment provides new and important insights into the depoliticizing functions of the WHO Foundation and the significant implications this may have for global health governance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116515
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Early online date22 Dec 2023
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2024

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • commercial determinants of health
  • depoliticisation
  • global health governance
  • philanthropy
  • political determinants of health
  • WHO Foundation
  • World Health Organization


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