When I saw that the Graduate Institute was hosting an event called “Universal Health Coverage and the New Health Economy” a few weeks ago on the margins of the World Health Assembly, I was very excited by the topic. I thought the focus would be on discussing different countries’ approaches and experiences with universal health coverage (pros, cons, effects on the economy – both in the short and long-term).

What Was Actually Discussed

Instead, the head of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Mark Dybul, kicked off the discussion, speaking about international health organisations’ old “marketing problem”, which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have now helped solve. How? By introducing SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

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All 17 SDGs

Before the SDGs were established, the international community aspired to reach the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) – originally set in 2000, with a 2015 deadline. Three goals were particularly relevant to the health sector:

  • Goal 4: Reduce child mortality
  • Goal 5: Improve maternal health
  • Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

By setting this new, all-encompassing goal through SDG (SDG 3), organisations and private companies involved in the international health sector can now argue for not just service provision but promoting healthy people (more productive ones at that) by starting the health response at the community level, Dybul explained. Hence, the marketing problem has been resolved – it’s not about building more hospitals and making money, they’d like us to believe: it’s about helping people.

Then the public face of Nestlé used her polished oratory skills to enumerate on her company’s various benevolent initiatives, which were allegedly “creating shared value”, or CSV (because the more acronyms, the merrier, right?), using a trite phrase coined by Harvard Business School professors Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer. Nestlé, according to Janet Voûte, was working with communities to create shared value – symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationships – with agriculturalists, in the water and other sectors. Sorry Nestlé, I haven’t forgotten your CEO’s push to privatize water. Since Peter Brabeck’s huge media faux-pas, Nestlé has done a good job of giving his statements a positive spin, claiming now that we shouldn’t feel entitled to water because it encourages “irresponsible use”.

The South African health insurance company, Discovery Vitality, didn’t have much to add other than the fact that now, through the push for universal health coverage, they had the potential to reach a larger client base. I appreciate the honesty. Simon Hendrie, their representative at the event, didn’t try to mask his company’s true motives: simply making money.

The presentations ended with some incoherent thoughts from Harvard Kennedy School professor, Peter Sands. His pomposity was an immediate turn-off and after some googling on F’s phone, we found that Mr. Sands had been up to no good as “the former head of one of the largest banks in the world” (his modest words), failing to “weed out transactions prone to money-laundering” and concealing “$250bn (£160bn) of US sanction-busting transactions with the Iranian government” during his tenure at the British Bank Standard Chartered.

Creating Shared Profit

So you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about since sitting through that dishonest discussion: when I started to focus on all things international, beginning with my undergraduate studies, I read time and time again about how governments pay lip service to human rights (i.e. pretend to defend and care for human rights and then outright violate those rights, or do so in covert ways). I’ve heard government’s refusal to accept this truth first-hand during supposed ‘high-level meetings’ and other hush-hush consultations at UNHCR – I know it happens beyond the confines of our Headquarters in Geneva, too. However, at this event, I saw private sector actors quite blatantly pay lip service to caring about more than just making profit.

Is the private sector creating shared value for people or simply for shareholders?

Somehow I see this as a new phenomenon, separate from the emergence of ‘social businesses’ and corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes. What do you think? Feel free to share in the comments below.