Q&A: New CEO Anil Soni on the future of the WHO Foundation

Anil Soni, CEO of the WHO Foundation.

MANILA — During the 72nd World Health Assembly in 2019, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced plans for the establishment of a WHO Foundation.

A year later, some of the details regarding what the foundation will look like have started to emerge. It will be an independent grant-making organization that will help fundraise resources for the perennially financially challenged WHO. Instead of tapping the agency’s typical donors, the foundation’s goal is to engage the general public, high net worth individuals or philanthropists, and private sector corporations.

And, just ahead of the year’s end, it has named its CEO.

Anil Soni will lead the WHO Foundation, effective Jan. 1. Soni, a global health leader who has worked in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors — most recently as head of the Global Infectious Disease at Viatris, a global pharmaceutical company — said he saw the role as an opportunity to support the work of WHO.

The foundation has an ambitious target: raising $1 billion in three years. If successful, it will help grow WHO’s expenditure by 10%, Soni said. But at least in the near term, the focus will be on raising money to capitalize the foundation so it can do its work and build his team. The goal is to be a lean foundation and to function without high overheads.

WHO launches foundation to expand its funding base

As WHO faced the loss of its largest donor, the U.S., the agency launched a foundation aiming to increase funding through nontraditional sources, including the general public, individual major donors, and the private sector.

“The billion dollars is for the work of the WHO. We will raise the necessary few million dollars separately for the function of the organization,” he said.

Soni spoke with Devex about the aims, goals, and challenges of the new foundation.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Will there be parameters or limitations in terms of the funding that you'll be raising from the private sector? As you mentioned earlier, WHO is a neutral organization, and there are limitations in terms of where it can get funding.

Exactly. So part of the reason we exist is because we will have a different set of operating parameters that will be more flexible in terms of engaging corporations. There will be some industries that are off-limits, because it's been important for the WHO to make clear that they keep a lack of engagement with the tobacco industry and with the arms industry, but those are typically the exceptions.

For other industries and corporations, we are going to be actively looking for partnership, and we will be doing so with ethical guidelines, which we will make public. So you know, we will have certain criteria by which we make decisions in terms of a particular partnership or receiving resources. But we won't be having the same restrictions in terms of engaging with corporations at all.

I'll give you an example. I'm moving to the WHO Foundation from Viatris. Viatris is one of the world's largest generic and specialty pharmaceutical companies. We literally make nearly half of all the AIDS medicines in the world. But engagement with the WHO, because the WHO's work can inform the procurement of medicines, has to be at an arm's length. They engage with industry associations, as opposed to particular companies.

The WHO would not accept a check from the company Viatris or even from the Viatris Foundation, even if it was intended to support something that was not oriented towards our particular area of interest or our particular set of medicines. But the WHO Foundation absolutely could do that.

So we could for the pharmaceutical industry, for example, say a critically important function of the WHO is to score prequalification, is to ensure that medicines, whoever makes them, are available at a certain quality. That type of an initiative is something that the pharmaceutical industry is very supportive of, in my experience, and it's not about favoring any specific company. That's the type of orientation that might be very relevant for the foundation to mobilize resources for the WHO in a way that it couldn't do itself.

And will there be some sort of transparency on who these fundraising resources will be? Because I can imagine, although the foundation will be independent, there may be questions with WHO's governance, with the World Health Assembly.

Sure. I'm a complete supporter of transparency.

I was one of the first employees of the Global Fund [to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria] nearly 20 years ago now. And I was asked a question then: “Are you going to put up on the web” — which was not what it is today — “all of the proposals and all of the performance reports?” And the answer was yes.

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And it's a credit to the fund and other international organizations that there's been the type of transparency that now exists — including, by the way, the WHO. Their web portal, on how they spend their money and where they get their money from, is terrific and very transparent. The foundation will operate in the same way. It will make clear where the money is coming from, and we will make clear where the money is going.

In the last few months, Tedros mentioned that 70% to 80% of what will be raised through the foundation will go through WHO, and then the rest through implementing partners. Is that still the case? Will health organizations, for instance, be able to submit a proposal to the foundation for funding for their programs?

The first part of what you said is correct. The second part, I think, is to be determined.

It is still correct that the majority of funding that the WHO Foundation raises will go to the WHO, but the mission of the foundation is not to support an organization. And this is a nuance, but I want to take a moment on it because I think it's so important and so aligned with Tedros' vision.

The WHO Foundation exists to support the work of the WHO to advance its mission, and it was truly, I think, inspirational for me and part of what attracted me to the job, for Tedros and Thomas [Zeltner, chairman of the board of the WHO Foundation], to agree that some of the money the foundation raises in order to support the work of the WHO should go to other organizations.

Because sometimes the WHO's work, just as other organizations’ work, depends on the WHO. The Global Fund couldn't succeed if it wasn't for the WHO, [and] neither could Gavi, [the Vaccine Alliance]. Likewise, some of the work of the WHO depends on other organizations. And that's why the foundation has the flexibility to give money to those partner organizations.

As far as the second part of what you said … we are not going to be an open sort of grants-receiving foundation. We will agree on particular program areas and areas of focus with the WHO, and then in concert with that identify opportunities to provide resources to partners. On a case-by-case basis, there might be RFPs [requests for proposals]. But that's really well ahead of us.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.