Can Businesses Address Structural Inequalities in Global Health?

By Sonya Soni, GBCHealth Social Media Corps

Saraswati Soni, my great-grandmother who was shunned by her Indian community in the 1930s due to her widowed status, transformed personal adversity into social change by establishing Dehra Dun’s first NGO devoted to the delivery of health and education to orphaned girls in the foothills of the Himalayas. Since my early childhood days spent at my great-grandmother’s orphanage and health center, despite her pure intentions, the lack of high-quality health care for girls in resource-denied settings like Dehra Dun became my challenge to better understand the structural causes of inequality around the world. My passion for understanding the root causes of injustices in health care led me to study medical anthropology at Harvard University, and it was here where my mind, thirsting for answers to my questions, was exposed to theories of structural violence on the marginalized and the political economy of ineffective aid. I became deeply inspired by revolutionary global health activists, where community-founded approaches to development were applauded and capitalist influences in social change were disparaged. Both being raised in the NGO culture and my studies at Harvard committed myself to a rigid perspective of the public sector as “holy” and the private sector as “corrupt.” This thinking made the most sense to me as I became critical of the corporate sector’s legacy of exploitation in communities such as the women and children I worked alongside in Bhopal, who were still suffering from the environmental irresponsibility of Union Carbide thirty years later.

My perspective in July of 2012 slowly began to be less judgmental, when I began my one-year fellowship with the Global Health Corps, an NGO that pairs young professionals with health delivery organizations in Africa and the United States. GHC strives to build a movement of individuals and organizations that fight for improved health outcomes and access to health care for the marginalized. But GHC also embraces the idea that in order to build a movement, engagement of all sectors of society, including the private sector, is necessary in realizing health equity. Many of my colleagues in GHC have spent their entire careers in the corporate sector and are now applying their technical skills and innovative solutions to health systems in Malawi, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, and inner-city U.S. And even though GHC is founded on the principle of health as a human right and focuses on addressing the root social, political, and economic causes of health inequity, GHC actively seeks robust partnerships with corporations such as Google, Johnson & Johnson, and Bank of America.

With now some of my dearest colleagues, friends, and mentors from the private sector as a result of being a GHC fellow, it is now difficult for me to ignore the impact of businesses in global health delivery efforts. I have been struggling to truly understand and embrace the recent glamour of global health buzzwords such “social business,” “social entrepreneurship,” “strategic management,” “delivery pipelines,” and “social marketing.” While I still challenge the ethics and legitimacy of the private sector in promoting health equity, the 2013 GBCHealth Conference will empower me to learn from the most influential corporate stakeholders in global health today, and better understand how traditional global health experts can learn from and effectively partner with businessman and their organizations.

As a Social Corps Media Corps member for this year’s upcoming GBCHealth Conference, I am eagerly anticipating the honor of reporting to the rest of the world on some of the conference’s most revolutionary ideas and commitments to global health delivery, as well interview a diverse group of leaders who are committed to public-private partnerships in social change efforts. I will be reporting on sessions that promote innovative partnerships, such as the panel on “Saving Children’s Lives: How Smart Businesses Are Building Shared Value,” where unexpected players ranging from ABC News to Sesame Street will reflect on how investing in child health and Millennium Development Goal 4 are essential for both economic and societal benefit. I am also excited to report on the panels “Cost-Saving Meets Life-Saving: How A New Innovative Financing Partnership Aims To Accelerate Progress Toward The MDGs,” “The Business of Family Planning,” and “Personal Journeys: The Moments that Guided Our Paths to Becoming Global Health Champions,” where business leaders and health innovators will share a rare glimpse into their motivations, successes, and challenges in devoting their lives to global health equity.

I am especially looking forward to interviewing one of my personal heroes, the First Lady of Zambia’s Dr. Christine Kasebas-Sata, who will be honored with the Frontline Hero Award for her pioneering efforts in addressing women’s health issues such as breast and cervical cancer. She is not only a state figure, but she has served in public hospitals in rural Zambia as an OBGYN and has tirelessly advocated against gender-based violence and reproductive health barriers in her country. She is also a proponent of foreign direct investment to strengthen Zambia’s weak social sector due to a history of British colonial rule and a series of military coups. I am also anticipating in being transformed by the reflections of changemakers who so gracefully straddle both worlds of the public and private sectors in building a health equity movement. These changemakers include Newark Mayor Cory Booker and GHC co-founder and former First Daughter Barbara Bush, who I have had the privilege of working for this year as a Global Health Corps fellow for the City of Newark’s Department of Child and Family Well-being. As I prepare to report days before the conference next week and reflect on my values between social justice and partnerships and solidarity to the marginalized, the wise words of global health prophet, Dr. Paul Farmer, echo in my mind, “Unless we can build public-private partnerships that support public health and public education, we’re going to get a lot of energy going into NGOs, but not really being able to be sustainable over time.”