With Ebola wreaking havoc across West Africa, news that a private company has virtually eradicated the disease on its extensive property invites sighs of relief.
Yet Firestone’s actions were not unique: private industry has a long history of saving lives when disease threatens.
As recent history demonstrates, to face the prospect of a rapidly changing world over the next century, the best we can do to help the world’s poorest is to pursue a strategy of resiliency. And that strategy includes rich multinational corporations.
Firestone, one of the world’s leading tire producers, needs vast amounts of rubber and owns a huge rubber plantation in Liberia. The property encompasses 185 square miles, employs 8,000 people directly, and indirectly supports 72,000 more people who live either on the property or in surrounding communities.
When the first case of Ebola appeared on the property, the company initially attempted to place the victim in a hospital in the country’s capital, Monrovia. Company officials quickly realized that the facilities there were inadequate, so Firestone set up its own Ebola ward in the company hospital. By mid-September, the facility was full. But through careful management, the disease was contained. A few weeks later, the facility was almost empty.
Firestone was able to do this because it had wealth, valued its employees and their families, and recognized the importance of stopping the disease. This is not an isolated example of a private company acting this way.
In the 1990s, when HIV/AIDS threatened to devastate Botswana, the mining firm Debswana worked to address the threat the disease posed to its facilities there and began what the United Nations called a “benchmark” program to keep its workers healthy.
Debswana raised awareness among its employees of the HIV/AIDS threat and how the disease spread. The company funded 100 percent of the cost of retroviral drugs to employees with the disease and their spouses, and it provided counseling and monitoring programs. The company called the fight against the disease its “highest corporate priority,” saying,
The Company’s commitment to the fight against HIV and AIDS is captured in its philosophy to minimize the impact of HIV/AIDS on employees, their families and the Company through prevention of new infections, care and support of those infected with HIV and containment of costs.
That is why measures that promote these two aspects of today’s economy are the poor’s best bet in surviving anything a changing world throws at them. Whether it be disease, extreme weather events, or the postulated effects of global warming such as sea-level rise, greedy corporations are saving lives worldwide, every day.
Enlightened self-interest and the interconnectedness of global supply chains combine to promote health and welfare everywhere. Business builds wealth not just in local communities, but in communities far away that connect with it. Bridgestone, Firestone’s parent, is based in Ohio, yet its regard for its own well-being led it to save lives in Liberia.
Another example, courtesy of my friend Andrew McLeod, might help to underline this point:
BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, runs one of the world’s most effective anti-malaria programs in Mozal, Mozambique, not because it is nice, but because it increases value.
The company’s program has reduced adult malaria infection from above 90% of the adult population to below 10%. The improved community health has lowered absenteeism in the work force and that has increased the productivity of their operation by a measurable amount higher than the cost of the program itself. When measured well, one can demonstrate that the anti-malaria program is directly, measurably profitable.
Wealthier is healthier. Nigeria, being a richer country than Liberia, was able to keep Ebola at bay. As Indur Goklany and others have shown, wealth is vital for societal resiliency in the face of such risks.
Wealthier is healthier: get with the program
Bearing that in mind, this is what a strategy for reducing the impact of such risks might look like:
- Promote true free trade by tearing down tariff and nontariff barriers with the developing world, such as the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
- Promote affordable energy and distribution networks for it in the developing world.
- Reduce regulatory burdens that divert talent toward developing accounting tricks or derivative products, rather than dreaming up genuine innovations.
- End America’s extraterritorial tax system, which discourages private investment abroad.
- Liberalize global payment systems to allow the free movement of remittances from immigrants to their home countries.
This program would not only lead to more Firestones around the world but also to more resilience at the national level.
However, such a program is bound to meet with opposition from the “global salvationist” establishment, whose conventional wisdom centers around inhibiting trade, banning effective but politically incorrect technologies such as DDT and coal, and reducing private profit. It may therefore be a while before it can be adopted.
In the meantime, people in poor countries like Liberia will have to continue to hope that companies like Firestone can be encouraged to invest there. They can best do this by establishing the rule of law and secure property rights. A true resiliency strategy begins at home.