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IBFAN statement of support to WHO   11th April 2020

The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and partner civil society organisations are joining forces to support the World Health Organisation in the face of attacks on its Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.[1] Some of the attacks seem to be politically motivated and orchestrated by US right-wing media and politicians. They have been fuelled by President Trump’s thinly veiled threats to renege on the US Government’s already (and frequently) overdue membership fees.[2]

For a member State to threaten to withdraw its funding for political reasons at any time – but especially now during the COVID-19 crisis – is dangerous and contravenes the duties all member States assume. The WHO constitution enshrines the right to health for all and demands that members “respect the exclusively international character of the Director-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them.” It also stipulates that each country has just one vote. This is regardless of the size of its financial contribution, and is indexed to the size of its Gross National Product. It’s not one dollar one vote.

IBFAN has witnessed US interference of WHO processes and the ‘Health for All’ agenda on countless occasions since the adoption in 1981 of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes – the first global consumer protection tool designed to tackle marketing that damages the health of babies. [3]  The US was the only country to vote against the Code’s adoption  and in the following years has invariably undermined efforts to strengthen it, at the same time pushing WHO towards more industry friendly policies.  In 2018, there was shock and widespread media coverage when the US administration put pressure on Ecuador to drop its support for a draft Resolution that aimed to protect breastfeeding and child health. [4]

IBFAN is a leader in calls for WHO to adopt a sound conflict of interest policy to safeguard its independence and resist the unjustified influence of powerful interests, be they commercial or  political. WHO’s total annual budget of $2.5bn – roughly equivalent to the budget of a large US hospital – has not significantly increased over three decades. That is a disgrace.  The assessed contributions of member States must be substantially increased if WHO is to carry out its constitutional mandate.

WHO has a unique role as the world’s coordinating authority in setting global health norms. We need it more now than ever to guide country responses to COVID-19 [6] and the host of other global threats that we face – not least global heating, new viruses, anti-microbial resistance and non-communicable diseases.


[1] The attacks on the DG include a petition calling for his resignation, and responses and racist cartoons on Twitter. See WHO’s Press Briefing (8.4.20) regarding politicization (move to: 19 mins)  personal attacks: (30 mins)  death threats and racism (33 mins). “Time to rally behind the World Health Organization”G2H2

[2] Far from providing the majority of the WHO’s funds, as President Trump claims, the US is already  about $200m in arrears in assessed contributions that are based on each country’s gross national product – preferring to give more in donations tied to specific projects of their choosing. “The WHO’s budget is around the equivalent of a large US hospital, which is utterly incommensurate with its global responsibilities…” Lawrence Gostin, Georgetown University [Trump scapegoating of WHO obscures its key role in tackling pandemic, Now is not the time to cut WHO funds, says official after Trump threatThe WHO coronavirus]

Member States Assessed contributions.   WHO Mid-term review    WHO Programme Budget Web Portal.

[3]  WHO’s Director General from 1973-1988, Halfdan Mahler, masterminded the adoption of the Code in 1981 in response to the evidence that 1.5 million babies were dying every year because they are not breastfed.  However,  the original proposal for an international code came out of the US Senate Hearings organized by Senator Edward Kennedy.    The issue kick-started a social movement and the world’s longest running consumer boycott of the world’s largest food company, Nestlé. A boycott that continues today.

[4] U.S. Opposition to Breast-Feeding Resolution Stuns World Health Officials.   CLICK HERE

[5] Since 1981  85% of the 198 countries have taken some action to implement the Code and the 19 subsequent Resolutions adopted have updated and clarifies it.  Together they  saved countless infant lives. However,  under pressure from powerful nations, industry and trade bodies to weaken safeguards,  far too many of these laws are too weak or rely on the voluntary cooperation of the companies. Today, over 800,000 babies continue to die each year because they are not breastfed.

[6] WHO and UNICEF have issued advice on breastfeeding and COVID-19 that is critically important to protect babies from harmful practices and commercial exploitation. In many countries mothers are being separated from their babies after birth, with as yet no evidence that the virus is transmitted through breastmilk.

1994: After 13 Years of opposition, the USA has joined the rest of the world in an historic consensus decision to support the International Code….African delegates vehemently rejected the assumption that Africa needs donations from baby food companies, stressing that such donations are nothing more than a promotional technique. Kenya stated that if the issue came to a vote it would insist on a roll call of Member States, ‘so that those who are unfair to babies would be known by name’. Baby Milk Action, Update 14, Oct 1994: 

For more information contact:

Patti Rundall.   07786 523493


WHO Constitution:

The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

Article 59: “Each Member shall have one vote in the Health Assembly”

Article 37: “In the performance of their duties the Director-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officers. Each Member of the Organization on its part undertakes to respect the exclusively international character of the Director-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them”

Some leads to IBFAN’s recent work related to WHO:

COVID-19 WHO stresses the importance of breastfeeding we will post new information about COVID-19 on this link as it becomes available.
Exporting countries put trade before the health of the planet and children  IBFAN Press Release, Nov 2019
When the SUN casts a shadow  Our report on the human rights risks of multi-stakeholder partnerships
Lancet Commission: A Future for the World’s Children says self regulation doesn’t work
Useful resources on the US UK trade deal
Making the Business Case for Nutrition Workshop
Our response to the draft Global Action Plan (GAP) on child wasting
Civil Society letter about COI in the UN Food systems
How ultra-processed food took over your shopping basket
No ‘sunset clause’ please!  NGOs call for vigilance on harmful marketing

IBFAN interventions at the WHO Executive Board Meeting 3-8th February.

WHO consultation on Governance (2019)



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