Saturday, January 30, 2010

Business Meets Goodwill at the World Economic Forum

At Davos this year, there is a lot of talk about humanitarian aid, particularly in light of the recent Haiti disaster. It’s not surprising then that many are applying business principles to the problem. What is surprising, or least interesting to us, is the consistency in applying one particular framework to humanitarian assistance. McKinsey is talking about it. Manpower is participating in it. Jeffrey Sachs is advising about it.

That is: Supply Chain Management. It might sound scary (that's many times what business jargon does: scares us) but it’s actually quite basic.

It starts with a simple question: How do we get aid from the Have’s to the Have Not’s? It’s best to use an example – let’s use the AIDS epidemic in Africa. On the one side, pharmaceutical companies make drugs to combat AIDS. On the other side, millions of Africans are infected with AIDS with no access to the right drugs. How do the right drugs get to the people who need it? Then, we identify what the supply is – either a product or service – in this case, pharmaceutical drugs. (We could even talk about people (that is, doctors) in the recent case of Haiti). Next, we break down, into discrete pieces, the points through which the supply is taken: (1) Pharmaceutical company, (2) Shipping company, (3) Port, (4) Village, (5) Individual. That is our “supply chain.” (The supply chain can look quite different than this – and get complicated pretty fast – depending on context). Finally, we determine how we get from one chain to the next, which is usually a question of who. Who is responsible for moving supply along the chain? The answer, in a lot of successful cases, is “Private-public partnerships.”

In the case of AIDS in Africa, for the most part, big US pharmaceutical companies (#1) have been responsible (sometimes with US government help) for committing a certain amount of drugs to ship (#2) to the appropriate African port (#3). At that point, the private companies’ expertise typcially ends. Another group must pick it up from there. NGO’s (sometimes with UN help), with their local expertise, are typically the best to distribute aid once it’s “on the ground.” From the port, they transport it to the right villages (#4), then get it to the right people (#5).

As a stark reminder of the importance of the supply chain as well as organizations’ roles along it, Jeffrey Sachs, at an intimate panel discussion, recanted that ten years ago, pharmaceutical companies started to realize that their drugs just sat in boxes at major African ports. They weren’t reaching those in need because there was no infrastructure in place to get the drugs to villages. Many died as a result. Some on the panel (which consisted of the CEO of Manpower, Executive Director of UN Global Compact, Deputy Chairman of KPMG, and President of Global Hand) nodded as Sachs mentioned that it was at Davos, that same year, that “Big Pharma” highlighted this challenge. They connected with the UN and international NGOs to link the last few supply chains together, ultimately ensuring that the drugs reached those in need.

It’s exciting to see business and humanitarian causes work handed-in-hand, not just “on the ground,” but also in concept. Transferring knowledge from one sphere to make the other better (in this case, the framework of supply chain management) is one of the World Economic Forum's biggest strengths. Where else do the "rulers of the universe" gather, in such quality and quantity, with so much focus and thought dedicated to combatting some of the world's greatest challenges? We have our criticisms of the World Economic Forum (many do), but it's worth highlighting the great good it serves as well.


  1. Ooohhh... nice framework David!! Good to see you still drawing powerpoint on a whiteboard. - Adam S.

  2. Thanks Adam :)... Nothing like a framework and a whiteboard, eh?