At the GBCHealth Conference in New York last week, business, civil society, government, and other key stakeholders gathered to discuss the role of business in global health. Topics discussed included HIV/AIDS thirty years into the epidemic, health programs in the workplace, and women’s health. The GBCHealth Conference is a major forum for global health experts, funders, implementers, and policy makers.
One important outcome of the conference was the announcement of the MDG Health Alliance, which is led by leaders in the private sector, UN and public sector, and academia and focuses on Millennium Development Goals 4, 5, and 6 (reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases). Early initiatives will focus on treating childhood diarrhea, which is a major killer of children in the developing world, the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and digital content for community health worker training programs. The alliance will develop and strengthen public-private partnerships for global health efforts. Jeffrey C. Walker, who will focus on health care workers for the alliance and is a former private equity CEO, called for targeted, cost-efficient solutions,saying, “We don’t have all the answers, but we might be able to help convene the people who do…Don’t think of this as corporate responsibility. Think of this as strategy. Approach it as helping yourself as you help others.”
I work in corporate social responsibility (CSR), so I do have some faith in the idea that companies can and should behave responsibly towards people and the planet while continuing to make money. Social entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships, and CSR have become increasingly popular: many consumers now demand an ethical aspect to the products they buy, the internet has made it difficult for companies to obscure their poor labor practices (or those of their suppliers), and companies themselves are realizing that investment in sustainable, responsible programs and processes will have long-term financial gains. For example, a factory-based health education program will help employees be healthier and happier, more productive, and less likely to miss work.
There is much justified criticism and skepticism to be laid at the feet of private companies, who are not always above “greenwashing” or the social equivalent (essentially, putting up a front of ethical behavior while doing the opposite), but there is also much to commend, and more importantly, much to learn. Although business acumen can be cutthroat, it can also breathe new life into other fields and offer new approaches to seemingly insurmountable problems, which is why social entrepreneurs are on the tip of every non-profit expert’s tongue right now. These hybrid partnerships–a pharmaceutical company and an HIV/AIDS implementer, for example–often make strange bedfellows. Out of (healthy) contention, differing opinions, and separate approaches come innovation, however. And while we see non-profits get a little leaner and more business-minded, perhaps companies will also get a little more altruistic and less focused on short-term gains.
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