Business actors and global health

Health is now one of the largest markets in the world, accounting for some 10 per cent of global GDP. Sectors that endanger health - such as tobacco, alcohol and junk food - are amongst the most influential global industries and it is increasingly recognized that health is a cause of economic growth, as well as a product of it.

For these reasons, health has become an important issue at the World Economic Forum. Medical and pharmaceutical research is a key area of research and technology development, and a major factor in innovation and competition between companies, regions and nations. But, in many cases, health agendas, and economic growth and investment agendas compete rather than complement one another, and innovation is focused on the needs of the rich rather than the poor countries - as in pharmaceutical research and development.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry and other parts of the private sector are increasingly involved in not-for-profit activities and alliances to improve health in rich and poor countries. Thus, for example, GlaxoSmithKline which, a few years ago, found itself on the wrong side in arguments with the South African government on patent protection for HIV and AIDS drugs, now proposes to lead the way in setting up a patent pool to contribute to research into neglected diseases affecting developing countries.

While it is logical that pharmaceutical companies should seek to enhance their reputation in health, this observation extends beyond pharmaceutical companies. As more products, ranging from tennis shoes to breakfast cereals, seek to establish their health credentials and companies place greater emphasis on the values associated with brand names, corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, which gained in popularity over the last two decades, can no longer be regarded as a passing fad. They are becoming the norm in the way business is conducted in the 21st century. Many such programmes have health-related issues as at least one of their focal points, with education and environmental programmes as common counterparts. For example, the Coca-Cola Foundation has HIV and AIDS and ‘active, healthy living' initiatives that that work in industrial countries as well as in 12 different countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Similar programmes can be found in the corporate social responsibility reports of global companies as diverse as Siemens and Volkswagen.

This trend towards CSR has many links to a developing and professionalizing civil society for global health. Contemporary philanthropic leaders have been central in demonstrating the added value, giving back to society and acting as a role model for their peers. The business leaders who have crossed over into philanthropy who first come to mind are often Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. In addition, the Clinton Global Initiative provides an excellent example of how civil society can effectively engage business through corporate social responsibility. Each year, the Clinton Foundation invites private sector actors to pledge financial resources to programmes addressing global health, energy and climate change, education or poverty alleviation. For example, the Clinton Global Initiative has led to a partnership between UNICEF and Procter & Gamble for the procurement and delivery of 45 million vaccines for neonatal tetanus.


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