Tomorrow in Mind: Corporate Social Responsibility

PHP Fellow Gilbert Benavidez writes on corporate social responsibility to respect and protect human rights, and how public health must be a leader in building partnerships with corporations to influence social policy.

A case of glass soda bottles, one with a red Coca-Cola cap

Read Time: 3 minutes


Corporations, with all the power they wield in the U.S. and abroad, have a moral, ethical, and quasi-legal obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. This obligation mirrors the stringent and codified legal obligations of governments to ensure human rights for their people. Opportunity to do more is abundant.

The simple reason public health must increase advocacy for corporate social responsibility to uphold human rights is clear: when you elevate human rights, you elevate population health and prosperity. Dr. Jonathon Mann, former World Health Organization official who pioneered global AIDS research and response in the 1980s, once said, “[W]e have the responsibility to move forward by recognizing that true interdependence and real interconnectedness requires that we—from health and from human rights—advance together: equal partners in the belief that the world can change.”

The Coca-Cola Company

The Zambian government ratified the United Nations Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1984, ensuring the right to the highest attainable standard of health for its citizens. But, thirty-four years later, the country still struggles to provide even basic primary care. As Dr. Joseph Kasonde, the Minister of Health in Zambia, has said: “You will find Coca-Cola in any village at any time in the course of the year, but you’ll not find medicines.” Without practical access to essential medicines, the right to health for the people of Zambia means nothing. Armed with this understanding the NGO Colalife worked to bring oral rehydration kits to Zambian villages, where UNICEF reports that “…It is expected that 60 per cent of babies born will not survive to the age of 40…[and]…Malaria is responsible for one third of under five deaths, with many others caused by respiratory infections, diarrhoea and neo-natal conditions.” The NGO turned to Coca-Cola to help them understand the distribution channels they rely on, and “the drinks giant responded, with advice, insight, detail, discussion and questions.”

Within the UN system is a legal principle called ‘progressive realization.’ What it means is that although countries may not have the capacity to ensure human rights immediately, steps must be taken toward them. World Bank GDP rankings put Zambia at 131st in the world. While the country is improving infrastructure and is on an upward trajectory, achieving lower-middle income status in 2011, the country’s economy is still dependent on foreign assistance. Zambia would have significantly less ability to tackle health and human rights challenges without these external contributions. The lent capacity of the NGO partnership with Coca-Cola facilitated the movement of oral rehydration, saving lives and further realizing the right to health in Zambia.

Continuing the Push for Social Responsibility

Numerous multinational corporations support corporate social responsibility initiatives focused on improving health around the world. These include the Coca-Cola Foundation’s global HIV programming, Pfizer’s trachoma initiative, and John Deere’s agricultural and educational support to partner villages in India. But programs like these remain an exception, not the rule. Public health must be a leading force and continue to build partnerships with corporations to :

1.)   Influence corporate social policy to promote the wellbeing of populations. This must include advocacy and activism, as well as a strong push from inside companies to behave more outwardly responsible.

2.)   Push leaders to follow in the steps of CEOs like Blackrock’s Larry Fink and “contribute to society.”

3.)   Better educate public and private entities about the social determinants that affect health, and how improving indicators (like average family income) can improve health drastically.

Feature image: Hernán Piñera, Coca Cola, used under CC BY-SA 2.0