Davos Dispatch 2: The Three Hurdles to Healthy Living

In this season of new year resolutions, you may think that the biggest obstacles to healthy living are lack of willpower, a lack of time to exercise and a love of cheese, pasta and good wine. OK, those are my obstacles.

However, at the more serious global policy level, the real obstacles to reducing chronic illness and promoting healthy living are short-termism, self-interest and the fear of transparency. This week in Davos we hope to diminish the power of each.

It is sad to watch the pervasiveness of short-termism among government officials and corporate leaders. Many elected officials focus their energy on positions that will get them re-elected in two years or four years. Some chief executive officers seem to have affection only for initiatives that will deliver this quarter’s or this year’s performance.

The problem with that mindset is that reducing the devastating impact of chronic illnesses – including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, poor nutrition, inactivity, mental illness and cancer – requires collaboration between government policy-makers and private sector leaders on actions and policies that will work over the next decade, not only the next 18 months. Take for example reshaping our cities so that they encourage more physical exercise. Changing policies and infrastructure like that doesn’t happen in a year. Nor does the reformulation of a snack company’s product line.

Equal damage to the healthy-living cause is done by self-interest among public and private institutions. In our meetings leading up to Davos this year, one executive asked: “Is the problem that we don’t know what to do to reduce chronic illness or is it that each player can’t give up their self-interest?” Sadly, there was consensus that self-interest is the problem. Many private sector leaders won’t or can’t look past the relentless push for growth and profitability that might come with a reformulation of a product’s ingredients or the type of products in their portfolio. Many public sector leaders and institutions won’t surrender their particular control over one area of policy or another.

The third obstacle is fear of transparency. It seems that few want to share their data, perhaps out of fear of the story it would tell and the painful revelations it would uncover about them. And this reluctance is seen among business, public sector and NGOs alike. However, release of data, at least selectively, is essential to determine what works.

So what to do about these obstacles? Here are three strategies to consider:

  1. Raise awareness of them and celebrate the leaders who demonstrate behavior that overcomes these obstacles. Build the business case for short-term investment that leads to long-term gains.
  2. Combat short-termism by building 10-year timelines into the healthy living goals in the now-forming post-2015 goals (UN 2025 Sustainability Goals). Signing on to the goals this time might require a timeline to tackle the problems.
  3. Expose self-interest and specifically ask for data sets – from government, business and NGOs – that are most needed to identify successful strategies to reduce chronic illness.

The Healthy Living Charter that has been published today at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, as well as several sessions on the issue this week, should give us ample opportunity to consider these and other approaches to eliminating the aforementioned obstacles. Let’s hope that we have the appetite to tackle this essential work.

This post first appeared on The Forum blog.