The Corporatization of Global Health

By: Alanna Shaikh

On Tuesday, I attended a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative about empowering women and girls. (technical note: by attended, I mean watched on the web from the basement press room. But I was streamed live.) It was presented by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Queen Rania of Jordan, and Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola. Mr. Kent did not hang back on the panel. He took questions and presented his viewpoint like he belonged there. He had ideas, plans, and commitments for Coca-Cola’s role in changing women’s lives.

Yesterday, Mr. Kent and Madeline Albright announced that they will be on the steering committee of the Partnership for a New Beginning, which seeks to improve US relations with the Muslim world. But this is about more than Coca-Cola. Coke’s not the only company that is taking on a new role in global affairs. Coca-Cola’s new visibility is a sign of the prominence that the private sector has taken on in the MDG summit, and in international development in general.

Corporations have been extremely present this week. It’s clear that the private sector has finally recognized that global development matters to their interests. Decades of speeches on the value of development for the world as a whole have finally, it seems, taken hold.

The question is, what does this mean for international development, and for global health?

Since corporations are new players in international development, one thing this will mean is that NGOs, developing nation governments, and other people working in the field will need to be prepared to do donor education. Private business practices do not translate directly into development approaches, although private companies almost always assume that they will.

Corporations will also tend to find programs that seem most directly linked to their areas of work. In other words, pharmaceutical companies support health care projects. Coca-Cola leans toward microenterprise. Oil companies, I admit, seem willing to fund anything that will make us like them, but even they generally want to work in countries where they are doing extraction.

And finally, corporate participation will accelerate the change of perspective on international development. US President Obama spoke yesterday, and he opened with this statement “In our global economy, progress in even the poorest countries can advance the prosperity and security of people far beyond their borders, including my fellow Americans. “ He went on to talk about a moral imperative to help, but the language of development and global health is more and more about mutual benefit and less about the moral requirement to help those who are in need.

It’s an interesting new world of international development and global health, and as I discussed last week, Neglected Tropical Disease are ahead of the game on this. Corporate involvement with NTDs has been almost entirely beneficial. All of our major NTD successes have resulted from close public-private partnerships. If we can learn from that model, we can make this new world of corporate engagement equally successful for other global health issues.

Alanna Shaikh is an expert in health consulting, writing about global health for UN Dispatch and about international relief and development at Blood & Milk. She also serves as a frequently contributing blogger to ‘End the Neglect.’ The views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers are not neccesarily the views and opinions of the Global Network.

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5 thoughts on “The Corporatization of Global Health

  1. Nice piece. Corporate sponsorship of “development” initiatives always makes me a little nervous. In addition to accelerating this idea of these things being mutually beneficial (I once read a World Bank report saying we should support women’s education because it’s good for the economy- well, how about because they have a right to it?) it perpetuates the notion that all you need to solve problems is a lot of money.

    Development aid is such a complicated area, though, it doesn’t work that way. As one potential donor for a project of ours here at Yale put it, getting money is the easy part– the hard part is finding the great ideas. You’re right to stress the emerging need for donor education.

    Carol Gallo
    MA African Studies
    Yale, 2009

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