Censorship of grassroots voices at global health conference raises concerns

The People’s Health Movement was removed from the organizing committee of the Prince Mahidol Awards Conference following an article criticizing presence of fossil fuel companies at public health events

December 07, 2023 by People's Health Movement
PHM activist Fran Baum during a panel at PMAC 2023)

The People’s Health Movement (PHM) has been a regular participant of the Prince Mahidol Awards Conference (PMAC) since 2007. Activists from around the world have freely given their time, ideas, and support to bring a progressive civil society perspective to an event whose objective is, reportedly, “to bring together leading public health leaders and stakeholders from around the world to discuss high priority global health issues, summarize findings and propose concrete solutions and recommendations.”

Over the years, PHM has contributed many hours of unpaid work for the PMAC, undertaking roles in the conference’s International Organising Committee (IOC). This was the case during the first phase of the preparation of the conference’s 2024 edition, focusing on “Geopolitics, Human Security and Health Equity in an Era of Polycrisises.”

Given this long involvement, PHM representatives at the IOC meeting in May 2023 in France were surprised and concerned to hear that the network is no longer represented on the PMAC International Organizing Committee nor invited to PMAC 2024. This decision was influenced by the perception created by an article commissioned by the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The article addressed the attendance of fossil fuel representatives at public health conferences.

The article was authored by four members of PHM and set out the reasons why fossil fuel companies should not be part of public health conferences. The statement also acknowledges that the perspective presented in the article aligns with the PHM stance on engagement with business entities. We identify numerous conflicts of interest between their emphasis on profits and our commitment to advancing people’s health. The BMJ was also removed from the IOC and is no longer welcome at the conference.

Corporate takeover of public health spaces

It is increasingly recognized that there are significant conflicts of interest between certain commercial entities and the processes they follow (e.g. tax evasion) and products (e.g. tobacco, ultra-processed foods, and fossil fuels) that need to be addressed by global health bodies such as PMAC.

PHM continues to hold that corporations whose practices have been shown to negatively affect health should not have a presence in public health conferences. This stance is crucial at a time when the significant adverse health impact of the behavior of many corporations is being recognized in the emerging and fast-growing field of study on the commercial determinants of health. PHM members have played an important role in conceptualizing this new field of study and have also been at the forefront of documenting the impact of corporate behavior on local communities.

This was most recently observed in the People’s Health Tribunal, which brought two companies – Shell and Total Energy – to trial and found them guilty of actions that harmed such communities. We are distressed that PMAC seems to be providing an increasing platform for these business representatives. Attending public health conferences is a well-recognized strategy for corporations to divert attention away from their practices that damage health.

Read more | People’s Health Tribunal finds Shell and Total Energy guilty of harming African communities

This exclusion, with no room for discussion or responses, came as a shock to PHM. We believed we had a cooperative relationship with PMAC, bringing a strong civil society voice to the conferences. To now be excluded based on perceptions of one article seemed unjust and unwarranted.

PHM is a vast global network of health activists with a presence in more than eighty countries, the majority of which are low and middle-income countries. We find the arbitrary decision to exclude such a civil society network from participation in the PMAC IOC and conference extremely problematic. The rules of engagement in the PMAC seem to be set by the local organizers with no formal processes governing the involvement of other bodies. We urge PMAC to adopt more democratic rules of engagement and ensure that civil society is engaged in an ethical and fair manner. Maintaining the power to exclude an entire civil society globally without discussion in the IOC and without providing organizations with an opportunity to respond to any issues that have arisen is profoundly undemocratic.

Aside from being very disappointed in the decision, we also found the manner of our exclusion raised some key issues. First among these is that while two representatives of PHM – Dr. Hani Serag (Co-Chair PHM Global Steering Council) and Professor Fran Baum (Previous Co-Chair PHM Global Steering Council and current Advisory Council member) – attended the IOC meeting held in Montreux in May 2023 and fully participated in all the IOC discussions, their names do not appear in the attendance list of the meeting. This action appears to nullify civil society’s contribution in a quite brutal manner and is contrary to acceptable practice in professional circles.

Secondly, PHM representatives have done substantial amounts of volunteer work for the planning of PMAC 2024, giving significant time to meetings and writing and liaising about conceptual and background papers. This work included principal co-authorship of the concept note, writing and contributing to session background notes, and providing many ideas for speakers and topics. Together, this contribution represents significant amounts of intellectual capital. This background work we have done in relation to PMAC 2024 appears to have been reassigned to other people without any acknowledgment or credit for our own contributions. Our members have spent considerable amounts of time preparing concept notes and session details and attending meetings, all of which was done on the understanding that we would remain part of the IOC and be invited to the conference. It is difficult to justify this considerable amount of time to PHM and the other organizations that employ us without the recognition the IOC membership and conference involvement bring.

PHM is deeply concerned that PMAC is eliminating highly significant civil society voices whose interest is to raise issues concerning people’s health and the political economy of health determinants. We consider that such voices need to be present in every global health forum. The exclusion of PHM from PMAC 2024 will lessen the credibility of PMAC.

Given the unwarranted expulsion of PHM from the PMAC IOC and conference, we call on civil society movements to boycott the PMAC conference until a clear set of guidelines for the involvement of civil society is derived that reflects a power-sharing mode of operation rather than the current power-over modus operandi, and a set of rules for engagement with commercial entities is developed that prioritizes people’s health above corporate profits.

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