Health is everybody’s business

February 01, 2002

“Companies must commit to the fight against HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria,” reads a recent World Economic Forum report. In our first guest editorial, Robert Davies asks why businesses must see health as an integral CSR issue. In rich and poor countries affordable access to health and medicines has emerged as a high profile challenge placing unfamiliar demands on businesses

In the developed world, the impact of job change, unemployment and stress on millions dependent on private health schemes, cost-pressures, rising expectations of workplace health practices and mounting concern about diet and obesity are all driving health onto the CSR agenda.

At the heart of the debate, however, is the confrontation between rich world companies and escalating health problems in the developing world.

For healthcare companies the rules are changing fast. Ethics and animal-testing are drawing new battle lines. Patent rights are subject to new risks. Last year we saw the pharmaceutical industry in AIDS-torn South Africa back down in its defence of patents on anti-retroviral drugs in the face of public opprobrium. More recently, we’ve seen the US government show a readiness to corporate patent rights for anthrax antibiotics in the name of public security.

What’s more, product donations have become increasingly problematic to control, and the production of more high tech medicine is shifting away from manufacture in developing nations.

But health is a major issue for non-healthcare companies too. Companies dealing in consumer cleaning products and food, for example, or in clean water infrastructure, or tobacco, have a greater impact on health than healthcare companies. Those companies operating in the developing world are also under increased pressure to help contain communicable disease or ease access to healthcare. As with HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, companies involved in high risk locations can play a key role in promoting prevention and access to treatment in places where pharma companies simply do not reach.

What’s more, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations, NGOs and policy institutions are showing a greater willingness than ever to engage with private sector partners – both healthcare and non-healthcare companies – in joint projects. Companies in developing countries can play influential roles at the workplace, marketplace and in communities. Most businesses can develop health programmes which they can share with their supply chains and local communities. The mining industry, for example, is beginning to have an impact on the HIV/AIDS rates. Companies with trucking operations discover they are a critical path in the spread of disease. Reduction in road accidents is vital. And most importantly, economic development can increase education and reduce poverty that ultimately is a key factor in poor health.

The challenge for companies is to develop a management framework to assess how core business practices, community engagement and problem solving capacity can impact on improved health. Responses must be integrated into CSR policies and practices. Employees need to be encouraged to engage in health initiatives. Above all, it needs CEO recognition and leadership that health is now everybody’s business.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 62 – February, 2002

Robert Davies is the founder chief executive of The Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum and a former health authority chairman. (