Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What is a Conflict of Interest?

In an interview with The Guardian, IAAF president Sebastian Coe offers a three-part test for having a conflict of interest:
For a conflict to exist it needs [1] not to be registered, [2] you need to not be able to stand behind processes and procedure and [3] thirdly you have to behave badly.
Unfortunately, Coe's COI definition stands in stark contrast to those used in governments and businesses. In fact, none of Coe's three criteria are actually relevant to the existence of an actual or perceived conflict of interest.

Let's look at some examples.

From the world of medicine:
A conflict of interest is a set of conditions in which professional judgment concerning a primary interest (such as a patient’s welfare or the validity of research) tends to be unduly influenced by a secondary influence (such as financial gain)… The secondary interest is usually not illegitimate in itself, and indeed it may even be a necessary and desirable part of professional practice. Only its relative weight in professional decisions is problematic. The aim is not to eliminate or necessarily to reduce financial gain or other secondary interests (such as preference for family and friends or the desire for prestige and power). It is rather to prevent these secondary factors from dominating or appearing to dominate the relevant primary interest in the making of professional decisions.

Thompson D. F., 1993. Understanding Financial Conflicts of Interest. The New England Journal of Medicine, 329:573-576.
From the world of science (US National Academy of Sciences, PDF):
The term "conflict of interest" means something more than individual bias. There must be an interest, ordinarily financial, that could be directly affected by the work of the committee. Conflict of interest requirements are objective and prophylactic. They are not an assessment of one's actual behavior or character, one's ability to act objectively despite the conflicting interest, or one's relative insensitivity to particular dollar amounts of specific assets because of one's personal wealth. Conflict of interest requirements are objective standards designed to eliminate certain specific, potentially compromising situations from arising, and thereby to protect the individual, the other members of the committee, the institution, and the public interest. The individual, the committee, and the institution should not be placed in a situation where others could reasonably question, and perhaps discount or dismiss, the work of the committee simply because of the existence of such conflicting interests.
From the United Nations:
Risks of conflicts of interest can generally be found at two levels:
  • as organizational conflicts of interest; and
  • as personal conflicts of interest.
An organizational conflict of interest arises where, because of other activities or relationships, an organization is unable to render impartial services, the organization's objectivity in performing mandated work is or might be impaired, or the organization has an unfair competitive advantage. A personal conflict of interest is a situation where a person's private interests — such as outside professional relationships or personal financial assets — interfere or may be perceived to interfere with his/her performance of official duties.

As staff, we should always strive to avoid situations where we benefit personally or allow others to benefit personally from the decisions we make for the UN. We need to be aware of how our actions, in the absence of an explanation, may appear or be interpreted by others. Sometimes, the perception of a conflict of interest raises as much ethical concern as does an actual conflict of interest. Conflict of interest situations do not necessarily imply wrongdoing. However, if they are not identified and managed appropriately, they can compromise our work and the Organization's integrity. When each of us avoids the perception and the reality of a conflict of interest, we can help preserve our independence and impartiality. One of the key steps in avoiding or resolving a conflict of interest is to ensure that we place the UN's interests above our own.

The UN is sensitive to the ways in which a staff member's private financial affairs could create potential conflicts of interest. Staff must refrain from managing or holding financial interests in any business if either the individual or the business has the opportunity to benefit from such an association by way of the staff member's position with the United Nations.
From the world of sport (IOC, here in PDF) :
In the following non-exhaustive list of examples, the circumstances in which a conflict of interests could arise are:

– personal and / or material involvement (salary, shareholding, various benefits) with suppliers of the Olympic party concerned;
– personal and / or material involvement with sponsors, broadcasters, various contracting parties;
– personal and / or material involvement with an organisation liable to benefit from the assistance of the Olympic party concerned (including subsidy, approval clause or election).

It is the personal responsibility of each person to avoid any case of conflict of interests. Faced with a situation of a potential conflict of interests, the person concerned must refrain from expressing an opinion, from making or participating in making a decision or accepting any form of benefit whatsoever.
The IAAF actually has a reasonable COI policy, consistent with those examples listed above. The real question for Sebastian Coe is whether or not he thinks it applies to him. If not, how can he credibly complain about athletes who dope because they don't think that the rules apply to them?

Let's end the examples with another COI policy, this one from Nike (PDF):
Conflicts of interest arise when an employee uses his or her position at NIKE for personal gain or when the employee’s personal interests conflict with NIKE interests. All employees must avoid any actions or relationships that could conflict with, or appear to conflict with, the interests of NIKE. For example, having a substantial investment or position in any business that deals with NIKE, doing NIKE business with close friends or relatives, supervising family members, relatives, or those with whom you are romantically involved, using NIKE’s name or reputation to gain personal favors, and accepting or offering payments, gifts or favors from or to companies doing business with NIKE are situations that could result in an actual or the appearance of a conflict of interest. 


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