How Private Companies are Transforming the Global Public Health Agenda

A New Era For the World Health Organization

The WHO in Geneva. (EadaoinFlynn / flickr)

During the 1970s and 1980s, the World Health Organization and other global health leaders often strove to improve the health of the world’s poor by targeting private sector excesses. They imposed restrictions, codes, and “ethical criteria” on the marketing of infant formula, pesticides, and tobacco, unnerving executives and stifling business plans. Success hinged on the cooperation of local governments, but where policymakers implemented recommendations they achieved real results. Breastfeeding rates rose, pesticide poisonings fell, and tobacco consumption declined.

Since then, the global health establishment has been turned on its head. Over the last two decades, the private sector has emerged as the world’s top source of financing and leadership in the fight against deadly disease. The resources of some of the private industry players involved in global health today dwarf those of the WHO. Groups such as the Global Business Coalition aim to turn “business assets into disease-fighting assets”; the GBC boasts a membership of nearly 200 companies, including multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil, and Pfizer. Why the interest? Firms are responding to local demands for corporate social responsibility, but they also have come to realize, as they look to emerging markets for future growth, that underwriting public health is a long-term investment. As development economist Daniel Altman recently explained, in a global economy, “these people are your consumers, your workers, your investors.” Several former WHO officials now work on public health issues for private industry. Most telling is the fact that 

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