Economic strategies for health equality (L2)

Building bridges with business and economic development

We hear a common theme at the European Health Forum Gastein – that we need greater levels of multi-sectoral work to tackle health inequalities. This includes private businesses and the “wealth generators” in society, since they too have an influence over the health of populations. Today’s lunchtime session on economic strategies for health equality emphasised the importance of engaging with businesses and economic groups if we are serious about achieving the SDGs by 2030.

Emma Spencelayh from the Health Foundation kicked off this session by highlighting some stark health inequalities from the UK. Major gaps in life expectancy and high levels of childhood poverty were cited; these are issues we may be familiar with, but cannot afford to be complacent about. Clearly, economic growth in high-income countries does not always equate to inclusive growth where everyone benefits. Having a healthy working-age population contributes towards economic prosperity, but there is an onus on us to ensure that available work is fair and decent work, which recognises the labour rights of employees. A few eyebrows were raised when some modern-day workplaces were likened to “sweatshops” and “Victorian workhouses”, particularly in zero-hour contract settings. Calling a spade a spade, perhaps…? If we truly want a healthy and productive workforce, then surely we need to do more to engage with large-scale employers, and encourage them to end unsafe and unfair employment practices.

Fabrice Murtin of the OECD convincingly argued that we could only truly achieve inclusive economic growth, and the SDG targets, if our health policies respond to “deep drivers of inequalities”. Inequitable income distribution has become more and more entrenched in recent years and has occurred in parallel with disparities in educational opportunities and social mobility. But what’s the solution? He asserted that inclusive growth needs real investment in the vulnerable groups who have been ‘left behind’, and business dynamism needs to be supported. There were nods of approval from the audience at the need to challenge the “Winner takes all” mindset that prevails in so many countries. How can we expect to see population-level improvements in health if our financial resources continue to be so unfairly distributed?

Charlotte Ersbøll of UN Global Compact emphasised the need to support businesses in a practical way so that they view the SDGs as real opportunities for growth. As public health professionals, we need to work together with businesses so they consider the health impacts of their activities. We need to encourage and facilitate them to do this, rather than pointing the finger of blame when it doesn’t happen. Although “health is everyone’s business”, it’s unrealistic to expect the corporate world to tackle health-related issues independently. We all need to play a part in “connecting the dots” between relevant stakeholders: healthcare professionals, policy makers, business leaders, economists, marketing experts etc.

A lively discussion ensued on how we can build bridges with the business world, and what practical steps we can take to ensure that politicians respond to the call for more inclusive economic growth. My highlight in this session was learning about the work done by the OECD in developing modern metrics that capture wellbeing and social progress in a more holistic way. We are all too familiar with the challenge of advocating for public health and social interventions, which we can’t adequately evaluate. The OECD has been working to capture, and quantify, what we mean by improved ‘wellbeing’ and ‘social progress’ by developing new indicators such as the Multidimensional Living Standard and Better Life Index. These metrics will allow holistic cost-benefit analyses to be undertaken when new reforms are proposed, and may help to convince politicians and multi-sectoral partners of the true value of such reforms. This year’s conference is about making “bold political choices” to achieve the SDGs… maybe these tools will help us to convince politicians to do exactly that?

From left to right: Charlotte Ersbøll (Senior Advisor, UN Global Compact), Fabrice Murtin (Economist, OECD), Emma Spencelayh (Senior Policy Advisor, The Health Foundation), Fiona Adshead (Expert Advisor, The Health Foundation).

What can be done? Framework for Action on Inclusive Growth. Slide from presentation by Fabrice Murtin (Economist, OECD).

This blog was written by a Young Gasteiner Peter Barret

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