Tobias Bünder, Hertie School of Governance

How pharmaceutical corporations organize for emerging challenges in global health

Recently, corporations have been assigned a greater role to foster sustainable development (Scherer & Palazzo, 2011) facing a retracting nation state in the management of a globalized economy (Hall & Biersteker, 2002). This debate is codified in the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development which puts new responsibility on active contributions from the private sector (United Nations, 2015). In the global health arena specifically, the WHO actively invites the private sector to play a more structural role in its action plan to reach the health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (World Health Organization, 2018a).

Pharmaceutical companies are facing intertwining societal and strategic pressures to increase the scale and scope of their contributions. Prominent emerging issues on the global health agenda like “Universal Health Coverage (UHC)” (World Health Organization, 2018b) or the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases require new corporate approaches to global health. At the same time, market-level factors increase the relevance of global health activities for companies’ business strategy: Growing pharmaceutical markets increases companies’ interest to get a foothold in developing countries. Moreover, companies are under strategic pressure to change their business model in high-income countries given debates around drug pricing (KPMG, 2017). Accordingly, companies can learn from doing business in resource-constraint settings of low-income markets and models of connecting business and health value creation can represent a future competitive edge.

My PhD project aims to make two contributions to existing literature on the role of corporations in global health. First, global health research has studied private sector involvement since the early 2000s. Yet, it focused mostly on questions of legitimacy or the governance of public-private partnerships (Leisinger, 2005; Reich, 2002), but treated the pharmaceutical industry as a unified actor. Bringing in an organizational studies perspective will help to open that blackbox. Second, in order to respond to emerging pressures, companies have tinkered with new ways of organizing and strategizing around global health. Thus, I treat the pharmaceutical industry as an instructive case of how organizational responsibility is redefined. To summarize, my PhD project asks how transnational pharmaceutical corporations contribute to sustainable development in the light of intertwining societal and strategic pressures.