Seven decades of close ties between the World Health Organization (WHO) and The Rockefeller Foundation have helped shaped global public health on issues ranging from pollution and poverty to pandemics and vaccines.

The longstanding relationship with WHO is among The Foundation’s most impactful.

That has included funding – The Foundation has provided the Organization with more than $25.6 million since 2000.

But perhaps the most crucial support may have been in pulling together stakeholders for meetings, including behind-the-scenes dialogues, and elevating public health discussions in a variety of forums.

“I don’t think of many of WHO’s public health issues would have been raised to the international global level without The Rockefeller Foundation, especially at the start,” said Ruediger Krech, a public health expert and WHO’s Director of Health Promotion.

“It was extremely important to have The Foundation there to bring issues to the global discussion.”

Drawing blood from a boy in Uruguay to check for lead levels

Mateo, 3, has blood drawn to check for lead levels in Montevideo, Uruguay in Marc 2021. (Photo courtesy of WHO)

A Partnership Forged in the Early Days

The Foundation participated as an observer at the first International Health Conference in June 1946, where WHO’s constitution was signed and the Organization became the first specialized agency of the United Nations.

The constitution was ratified and WHO was officially formed on April 7, 1948.

The links between John D. Rockefeller III and independent India’s first health minister, Amrit Kaur contributed to the decision to open WHO’s first regional office in Delhi, said Sanjoy Bhattacharya, Head of the School of History at the University of Leeds, where he is also Professor of Medical and Global Health Histories.

Just six months after WHO’s formal founding, the first session for the WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia was held in Kaur’s office.

“This fact sheds a light on the rich and complex relationship that WHO had with The Rockefeller Foundation—a relationship that contributed to a more inclusive, racially diverse and inspiring history,” Bhattacharya said.

  • WHO Health Center of the Democratic Republic of Congo helps internally displaced in March 2023 (Photo Courtesy of WHO)

    WHO Health Center of the Democratic Republic of Congo helps internally displaced in March 2023. (Photo courtesy of WHO)

Ongoing Initiatives Nourish the Relationship

Connections between the Foundation and WHO continue to grow.

In fact, the partnership between WHO and The Rockefeller Foundation “is not only historic, but a living alliance that speaks to our shared vision of the importance of medical science and data-driven innovation to advance public health,” said Dr. Naveen Rao, Senior Vice President for Health at The Rockefeller Foundation.

WHO conducts a training to combat malaria in Sohbatpur, Balochistan in March 2023

WHO conducts a training to combat malaria in Sohbatpur, Balochistan in March 2023. (Photo courtesy of WHO)

  • In September 2021, WHO and the Federal Republic of Germany, working in close collaboration with The Rockefeller Foundation, launched the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin. The Hub aims to create the largest network of global data to predict, prevent, detect, prepare for, and respond to pandemic and epidemic risks worldwide.
  • In January 2022, The Rockefeller Foundation was admitted as a non-State actor in official relations with WHO.
  • And in May of this year, the WHO and The Rockefeller Foundation announced a new partnership to strengthen the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence. As part of the collaboration, the Foundation is investing $5 million to cultivate global networks for pathogen detection and strengthen pandemic preparedness capabilities, including broadening surveillance for diseases worsened by climate change.
  • The WHO and the Foundation are also working closely on digital health tools in select countries to support tracking and monitoring of public health needs and services for the most effective use of resources.

Response to the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 (Photo Courtesy of WHO)

Response to the Haiti earthquake in January 2010. (Photo courtesy of WHO)

Global Public Health Pioneer

The Foundation has long been a pioneer in global health.

Even before it was founded in 1913, J.D. Rockefeller created and endowed the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, the first in the United States dedicated exclusively to understanding the bioscience of disease.

In the decades after its founding, the Foundation led campaigns to eradicate hookworm disease, malaria, and yellow fever, and funding research into vaccine development.

In the 1970s, the Foundation increased multidisciplinary efforts to understand the social determinants of health, increase equity, and support developing nations facing environmental issues and other major challenges impacting community health.

One key role the Foundation historically played has been to help bring stakeholders to the table.

“A lot of these dialogues set up through the years with The Foundation’s support have been informal,” Krech said, “and that is important. It allows us to level-set on various potential initiatives, and then decide whether or not it requires a discussion in our governing bodies.”

That is particularly critical during public health crises when next steps are being considered.

  • The Covid-19 pandemic made it clear that well-coordinated global health collaboration is essential to success. That teamwork remains crucial as the world faces the climate-fueled health threats of the future.

    Naveen Rao

    Senior Vice President for Health, The Rockefeller Foundation

The definition of health promotion “is to enable people to take control over their health and lives,” Krech noted. “During global crises where public confidence can be shaken, it is reassuring to partner with institutions like The Rockefeller Foundation, with its history and values.”

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