Harnessing the power of business to improve health and livelihoods of the poor

McGill forum to draw on new models of socially responsible capitalism

By McGill Reporter Staff

Market forces have produced great economic benefits. Yet they may also be at the root of some of the most intractable health problems in the world today: obesity and chronic disease; inadequate food security; and inequities in healthcare access.

Starting with a major conference Nov. 17-19, an international initiative led by McGill will seek to develop solutions to some of these challenges by building on emerging models of socially responsible capitalism.

The newly created McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence – a virtual and real-world think tank – aims to seed actions that will take advantage of market forces and better public policies to promote health and wealth throughout the world.

Drawing on contributions from such leading thinkers and innovators as Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Harvard’s Michael Porter, and the Desautels Faculty of Management’s Henry Mintzberg and Nancy Adler, the McGill World Platform will explore new ways to make health and healthcare an integral element in management decisions – and to weave management and economic considerations into public healthcare systems.

In the wake of the global economic slump, corporate social responsibility – which once meant practicing good governance, paying taxes and pursuing philanthropy – has taken on a more far-reaching meaning.

Among the new models being explored: “creative capitalism,” a concept introduced by Gates to apply the profit motive and a sense of caring to the problem of global inequity; C.K. Prahalad’s “inclusive capitalism,” which harnesses innovation to improve the livelihoods of the two billion people who live in extreme poverty at the “bottom of the pyramid”; and “social business,” in which social goals are pursued through market activities such as Yunus’s microcredit network.

Prahalad and Yunus are honorary co-chairs for the inaugural program of the MWP Health and Economic Convergence Think Tanks. Other prominent participants include Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author of a new book on how “vanguard businesses” create profits and social good, and Cornell University’s Stuart L. Hart, author of Capitalism at the Crossroads.

The MWP’s inaugural program will use the landmark 2008 report of the World Health Organization’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health as a framework for action. The report’s author, Sir Michael Marmot, will co-chair the program along with Laurette Dubé, Founding Chair and Scientific Director of the McGill World Platform, and Wendy Thomson, Director of McGill’s School of Social Work and former advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The conference will begin with a series of workshops on Nov. 17 focusing on four themes: Food and Nutrition Security; Credit and Financial Empowerment; Sustainable Places and Communities; and Health-Promoting Work Environments. These sessions will explore the latest trends and most promising innovations, in matters ranging from microfinance in the developing world to the challenge of reducing salt in processed food.

The goal of the meetings is to develop an ambitious array of on-the-ground projects, supported by a network of corporate and public-sector partners.

The MWP grew from the McGill Health Challenge Think Tanks held annually since 2003. Those gatherings, led by the Desautels Faculty of Management and the Faculty of Medicine, spawned an international network of scientific, management and social-science experts whose collaborative research promises to help curb growth in obesity rates by promoting healthier food choices.