Concerns regarding the SUN Movement’s conflicts of interest guidance
There are several reasons why the SUN Movement’s guidance on conflicts of interest is problematic. Firstly, the purpose of the guidance does not seem to be to protect the integrity, independence and public trust in individuals and institutions serving public interests, but rather to ensure effective functioning of the partnership itself and to strengthen inclusion of new partners ((12), p. 14). The definition applied is unclear and states that a conflict of interest arises when a secondary interest conflicts with the aims of the partnership, which in the case of the SUN Movement is to promote multistakeholder collaboration. It also states that it is important to manage conflicts of interest ‘because it can promote inclusiveness in recruiting and working with stakeholders. (…) and contributes to the effectiveness of the collective effort’ ((12), p. 18).
Secondly, the SUN Movement’s guidance confuses conflicts of interest with concepts such as ‘diverging interests’ between different actors, and by suggesting that any type of collaboration can lead to conflicts of interest, downplaying the concern about conflicts arising between primary and secondary interests (for example public health versus profits) within an institution or an individual. The guidance also underplays the significance of conflicts of interest by distinguishing between actual and perceived conflicts of interest. The concept of ‘perceived’ conflicts of interest suggests that a conflict of interest only arises if actual bias or harm to public health occurs. This is misguided and opens up for treatment of perceived conflicts of interest as less serious (13). Indeed, the SUN Movement’s guidance states that perceptions of conflicts of interest only sometimes merit an intervention ((12), p. 14).
Thirdly, many of the principles of engagement upon which the guidelines are based conflict with an effective conflict of interest policy. Of particular concern are the principles ‘to be inclusive’ and ‘to be willing to negotiate’ ((12), p. 11). In order to avoid undue influence on public policy-making, exclusion of actors with perceived or actual conflicts of interest is sometimes necessary, and there is not always room for negotiating ways around it. However, the guidance of the SUN Movement encourages to ‘limit the scope and duration of any exclusionary decision’ ((12), p. 21) on the grounds that it contradicts the principles of the partnership. If multistakeholder partnerships mean that the principle of inclusion must be followed above all else, this model is not reconcilable with effective prevention or management of conflicts of interest. The principle of inclusiveness is also problematic, as it does not recommend any limitation to the involvement of non-state actors at any point in the policy process. Having committed to being members of the SUN Movement, governments’ abilities to withstand pressure and attempts at industry interference may be undermined, as well as their political power to decide on the extent to which private actors should be allowed into policy-making processes, and at which stage.
The SUN Movement’s principle number 5, ‘to be predictable and mutually accountable’ is also problematic as it suggests that governmental and non-governmental actors alike have equal responsibilities. While every partner has a role in a partnership, the roles and responsibilities of the various actors are not at the same level. Most importantly, governments are primarily accountable to citizens, not to other members of such partnerships.
Finally, the SUN Movement’s guidance is weak in the measures it proposes to prevent and manage conflicts of interest. It recommends protection of confidentiality and privacy in the disclosure process ((12), p. 18), which contradicts the principle of transparency. Rather than ensuring an independent process, the guidance recommends that ‘Mechanisms for managing conflicts of interest should include all stakeholders – including those with a perceived or potential conflict of interest’ ((12), p. 20). This will seriously limit the effectiveness of a conflicts of interest policy.
These issues indicate that the SUN Movement’s Reference Note and Toolkit do not provide an appropriate or sufficient response to the very real question of how to protect food and nutrition policy-making from undue commercial influence. Rather than providing clear advice to governments on how to address conflicts of interest while engaging in partnerships, the SUN Movement’s guidance seems to encourage inclusiveness above all else, without any risk assessment. This contributes to governments’ existing confusion about when and how to enter into partnerships, and may even legitimise engagements that clearly create conflicts of interest. Additionally, the overlap with WHO’s work on country guidance on conflicts of interest may lead to slower and weaker measures to protect nutrition, and an additional burden on already overstretched government staff.