Geneva Health Forum Archive

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The Social Responsibility of the Private Sector and the Right to Health

Author(s): Klaus Leisinger1
Affiliation(s): 1Special Advisor on UN Global Compact to the UN Secretary General; Director, Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, Basel, Switzerland
Key issues: In view of the fact that many people are afraid that globalization entails erosion of social, ecological and human rights standards, but at the same time are aware that responsible business can make a substantial contribution to the achievement of development goals, the UN Secretary General called on corporate leaders to make globalization more socially equitable as well as environmentally friendly and thus mobilize resources and knowledge to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG). As a result, the UN Global Compact (UNGC) was brought into being, to make ten principles an integral part of entrepreneurial activities, as well as to encourage and facilitate dialogue and partnerships between the various stakeholders. Today, there is a minimal consensus among companies competing with integrity that an enterprise must not profit from legal loopholes or freedom of interpretation in implementing appropriate regulations, but should do the right thing as a result of voluntary self-commitment. All areas of activity important for entrepreneurial ethics are covered under the rubrics human rights, labour conditions, environmental protection, fight against corruption by the UNGC. Hence, the ten principles offer an excellent reference framework for a self-critical self-analysis, e.g. with regard to current business practices or under which circumstances (e.g. market failure) special normative claims (e.g. offer of life-saving medicines at special conditions) can be acknowledged. Since the rational justification of a normative action principle does not necessarily entail the implementation of that principle, corresponding management processes and standard operating procedures are necessary. In order to have a practical impact, the principles of the UNGC must be filled with company-specific content. In this way a company escapes the trap of giving into the loudest demands and becoming a plaything of changing external interests. Instead, it comes to informed decisions about the portfolio of the corporate responsibility services which one wishes to sustainably offer. It then establishes a code of conduct and guidelines to determine what is required where and what will not be tolerated. However, standard operating procedures cannot satisfactorily cope with all challenges. In order to deal responsibly with unexpected or structurally new problems, a corporate culture has to be developed, in which moral insights mature into self-stabilizing attitudes which grow out of self-motivation and are not simply adhered to because of a compliance monitoring regulation. However, the most well-intended implementation is an open process, because large international companies are increasingly confronted with questions of responsibility where the level of action to be taken lies beyond the conservatively defined normal daily routine of business. As examples one might cite the debate on business and the right to health. Against the background of rising mass poverty and the associated illnesses, new demands are increasingly being made of companies, which are partly intended to compensate for the obligations of governments and the international community. To find the right and credible balance between the extremes of doing nothing as the states are primarily responsible? and ?accepting all obligations assigned by civil society?, which in the long term results in competitive disadvantages of the companies, will in the future be one of the major tasks of strategic values management. In order to strengthen corporate responsibility beyond the logic of a narrowly defined social labour division, the social recognition of special investments made needs to be increased. Reputation capital could be regarded as a return on investment for corporate responsibility achievements which would create a business case of responsible entrepreneurial activities.

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