There’s no evidence that Gates Foundation has influenced India’s health policies, says India director of BMGF

Responding to charges of influencing India’s health policies for their own benefit, Nachiket Mor, India director of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), told The Hindu in an exclusive interview that the Foundation was active in India because the government felt it added value. Mr. Mor said that if the government changed its mind, the Foundation will move to countries that need its help. Excerpts:

Is the BMGF in India under scrutiny?

That’s not obvious to me, and I am not hearing anything different from the Health Ministry. In fact, I have pending requests [for various proposals] right now that have not been withdrawn. The government sets the priorities. We are external partners. We are responsive — we don’t set any strategies. I don’t know what people believe about our influence. There are very smart, influential people that run this country. It is they who tell us – this is what we want to do, this is what we can do on our own, and this is where you can help us.

Has PHFI been targeted for its proximity to the BMGF?

I don’t think there is any such basis to say this, given that in India, 60-80 per cent of the NGOs have, at some point, received money from the BMGF. The reality is that a large number of NGOs — in India and outside — have been directly or indirectly funded by the BMGF. Globally, agencies such as DFID and USAID are withdrawing funds. There are not that many donors out there. We believe that our role remains technical and not financial. In countries like India, our contribution is technical know-how, not financial commitment. India has the money.

But PHFI has been one of your biggest partners. How do you understand the Indian government’s decision to cancel its FCRA licence?

I don’t know what the logic behind it is. There is no link to anything that we are doing.

BMGF has been accused of influencing India’s immunisation programme, especially its vaccination strategies.

At BMGF, we believe that vaccines are a cost-effective way to meet public health challenges. We support anyone who asks for evidence and data. The question to ask whoever is making these allegations is, why is there so much insecurity about your own competence? Ultimately, Indians are taking decisions in India’s best interests. If anybody alleges that they are acting under the influence of foreigners, I’d ask them to take a good look in the mirror.

Consider some of the people driving these decisions in India. Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Dr. MK Bhan, Dr. Vijayaraghavan — these are fantastic people. By making such an allegation, you are saying you don’t think these people are competent.

What about allegations that BMGF has influenced India’s health policy?

I see no evidence. Our goal is to spend charitable resources on the ground. Pharmaceutical companies that we speak to are reluctant to make vaccines. There is no money in that. They need to be persuaded, and we have to talk to them. The Foundation’s role globally has been to ensure that there is adequate supply. I actually see a reverse problem. Look at the donations pharmaceutical companies have made to GAVI and other organisations. These are not vaccines they are making money on. We enter where markets fail.

My brief from Seattle is that we have nothing to hide (sic). But I would not proactively go out and influence political thinking. That’s not our goal here. I cannot speculate on whether the political winds are against us. I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. I am here because the country feels that I can add value. The day the country feels I cannot add value, well, there are many other countries that would want our help.

What will be the BMGF’s role in India, if the government were to change its mind?

The ideal role for the Foundation is to have no role. We are here because the government says that there are gaps. If they tell us that there are no gaps, we will leave. Last year, a million babies died. There is an enormous gap going by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which say that we have to reduce it to half a million deaths in 2030. The BMGF increased its footprint in India because it saw a large gap and the government said they needed help.

But that was a different government.

We have worked with different governments — at the State level and at the Centre. No government has told us that they don’t need our help. Whenever there is a proposal that comes to us for support, we always ask the government when they will take over the project.

What do you think about PHFI’s work in India?

It is hard for me to say anything specific about the PHFI. Right now, I don’t have the sense that the PHFI issue has anything to do with us.