The Gates Foundation took the unusual step of terminating a grant, this one for a Canadian group engaged in tobacco control, after the chair of its board was exposed as a director of Canada's largest cigarette maker.
The foundation said today it has severed a $5.2-million grant to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) after it was informed that the group's chair, Barbara McDougall, was also a director of Imperial Tobacco Canada, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco. McDougall served as Secretary of State under Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Last week, the African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA) announced it was pulling out of a Pan-African tobacco control meeting in Senegal that it had planned to co-host with the IDRC after discovering the group's link with the tobacco industry. The Gates Foundation was funding the Dakar meeting and had awarded the grant to IDRC in December 2007 for programs in Africa.
"We are deeply disappointed by this revelation and feel this conflict is unacceptable," the Gates Foundation said in a statement today. "We are terminating our tobacco control grant to IDRC, effective immediately."
Philippe Boucher at the Tobacco Control in Africa blog has investigated IDRC's links to Imperial Tobacco and says many questions remain, including what the Gates Foundation will do to ensure its grantees are free of such conflicts in the future.
The foundation continues to work with IDRC, a Canadian government-owned corporation focused on development, on a $30 million project to support African think tanks.
Looking more broadly at the real and potential conflicts of interest of serving on corporate boards, Pablo Eisenberg thinks college and university presidents should quit corporate boards entirely. What about the directors of other non-profit organizations serving outside interests? Such relationships are not always transparent.
Eisenberg points out that a growing number of presidents not only sit on corporate boards but collect huge fees for doing so. "This trend has dangerous implications for both the colleges and universities and the CEOs involved," he writes.