October 2 2018 – A week at the UN General Assembly: healthcare, better business, and the President

I just got back from the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. A week full of political speeches, partnership building, inspiration, panel-overdose, early sessions and late nights…a good week! My main priority was on healthcare and the UN Global Compact.

The week started really well with Philips signing an MOU with UNFPA to jointly develop large scale transformation of maternal health in developing countries, starting with Congo Brazzaville. A great partnership based on trust and shared values that will improve the lives of 50 million women!

An area that was relatively new to me was Tuberculosis (TB). This year TB made it onto the UNGA agenda for the first time in history. An old disease that affects mainly poor people in developing countries (unlike AIDS). Therefore, a renewed momentum is needed to start the fight. I was inspired by what J&J are doing to fight TB by developing new treatments. The question to the UN Heads of States, as the Minister of Health of South Africa put it: can we afford not to eradicate this disease?

The other healthcare topic on the agenda of the heads of state was non-communicable diseases (NCDs). There were more than 100 NCD side-events during UNGA! My biggest insight: NCDs are communicable!! A person with diabetes will probably lose his job, fall into poverty, affecting his family and kids and thus communicating” the impact of his disease to his loved ones. Philips launched a report with perceptions on the readiness of developing countries and advise on where to prioritize interventions: education on recognizing NCDs and early detection at primary care level. The NCD Alliance explained that none of the developing countries have the essential medicines and technologies in place to address NCDs. Less than 2% of all development assistance goes towards NCDs. On the positive side, I was encouraged by the #beatNCDS and the Defeat NCD partnerships and the vision of Egypt and Kenya to start tackling these diseases.

Jan Kimpen (Chief Medical Officer of Philips) and I at UN after the launch of our NCD report

Universal Health Coverage

One of the most complex healthcare topics is Universal Health Coverage. A high level session at the UN to create momentum for UHC2030 was mired by an audience that seemed more interested in the bar than the visions of the WHO, World Bank or the Africa Union. Disrespectful behavior at the UNGA that I have unfortunately witnessed more often. The UHC agenda is about providing quality care to people without risking to fall into poverty as a consequence. That means care for TB, HIV, pregnancy, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and so on. There are 60,000 ways in which a body can fail, and about 6000 interventions to cure people. What an incredible task for governments to design a health system that meets the most pressing needs! But, as Dr Jim Kim of the World Bank stated, countries that invest in health and education and thus invest in Human Capital will see economic growth that is 1.5% higher/year. The Human Capital Index launches on 11 October during the World Bank Annual Meetings and will provide a huge push for more systemic investments in healthcare.

Dr Jim Kim, President of the World Bank, explaining the Human Capital Index

I also attended the UN Global Compact Leadership Summit. As chair of UN Global Compact NL I wanted to meet my peers and share the initiatives our Dutch organization is leading on in the area of Young Professional and Human Rights. I agreed with Lise Kingo (CEO UNGC) that she will address a WEF/Erasmus conference on the ”Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity” which will be held in Rotterdam on November 29, 2018. Great to have UNGC taking the lead with WEF, Erasmus and Philips to help companies align their corporate goals and strategies to societal goals.

The UNGC leadership summit brought 100s of private sector representatives together to share how they are addressing business and human rights, creating jobs for refugees combating climate change, promoting the circular economy, etc. There was a really inspirational story about a lady managing a large fashion company in Jordan employing Syrian refugees.

What struck me is that in all the sessions I attended the UN system was very explicit that it is not a matter “if” the private sector is part of delivering on the SDGs, but more “how”. There is a huge opportunity for the private sector, but that also brings obligations to behave responsibly. A sad example of how that can go wrong was the sponsorship of Philip Morris of the Concordia Summit. Dr Tedros (WHO) had no other option than to cancel his participation. The recommendations of the Independent Accountability Panel towards the private sector in this regards are worth reading. They call for more regulation and enforcement especially to help companies that align their corporate strategies with long termism. That is fine by me, although I am focused on getting the best out of companies, rather than focusing on regulations to prevent the worst. What I have been advocating for is for the UN to assist developing countries by providing a neutral brokering function that can help governments to engage with the private sector and develop mutual beneficial investment plans for SDGs. Philips is engaged in the SDG Partnership Platform in Kenya which was created exactly for that purpose, and aims to unlock 1 Billion US$ of investments in primary care. I am encouraged that organisations like UNDP, the World Bank and USAID are eager to make that happen.

Finally, I followed the money for a while…. I was amazed to see in one event “causes” being described in search of money while a few blocks down money from investors was in search of a cause (literally billions of dollars looking for bankable SDGs!). I had been looking for investors for a large primary care project we are developing in Kenya and found many! At a UNGC reception with about 500 participants from all kinds of private sector companies, ranging from renewables to real estate I started talking to someone randomly. Turns out he is the CEO of a social impact bank that was investing exactly into that area. What are the odds of that happening? On Thursday I walked into a private equity event where the first person I met was also looking to invest in exactly the areas I was looking for. The week was full of such impromptu meetings and the networking opportunities are phenomenal. I wonder what connections I could have made if I had randomly spoken to more “strangers” in corridors of the UN. One of those strangers I literally ran into was President Trump. Unfortunately, we had no time to chat. He was late for his address to the UNGA 🙂

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