To Improve Global Health, Bloomberg Looks to Cities to Lead

Vegetable sellers in Mumbai, india

Vegetable sellers in Mumbai, india

One of Michael Bloomberg's main contributions to the global fight against climate change has been to mobilize cities to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Bloomberg not only made New York City a leader in this area as mayor, but funded and also chaired C40, a global network of large cities working against climate change. Most recently, Bloomberg rallied cities in the U.S. to affirm their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. 

Bloomberg also believes that cities worldwide have a key leadership role to play in improving public health, his other main passion. Much of his global health funding, which has mainly prioritized reducing deaths from tobacco use and road accidents, is targeted at changing practices and behavior in large cities, where over half of the world's population now lives. As Bloomberg gives new attention to non-communicable diseases in poorer countries—which he rightly sees as a much greater threat than better-known diseases like malaria and AIDS—much of that funding is likely to unfold in large metro areas, as well.

Related: Hold the Malaria Nets: Bloomberg’s Contrarian Vision for Global Health

So it's hardly surprising to see Bloomberg Philanthropies taking new steps to knit together its growing global public health work through a new Partnership for Healthy Cities, which it describes as a “prestigious global network of cities committed to saving lives by preventing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and injuries.” Bloomberg Philanthropies committed $5 million to launch the initiative in May and is working alongside the World Health Organization and Vital Strategies to implement proven health interventions to avoid injuries and NCDs.

Those interventions will be familiar to Bloomberg watchers in both the U.S. and abroad. Among the ideas that the Partnership for Healthy Cities supports are creating smoke-free cities, banning tobacco advertising, reducing sugary drink consumption, decreasing salt intake, and increasing the use of seatbelts and helmets.

In addition to several U.S. cities, participants in the network include top cities in China, India, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam. Each city, says Bloomberg Philanthropies, will "receive support to implement one of 10 proven interventions to prevent noncommunicable diseases and injuries."

NCDs kill 40 million people each year, comprising 70 percent of deaths around the world. NCDs such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory diseases, and diabetes account for 81 percent of all global NCD-related deaths. By going after these top global killers and focusing on the places where increasing numbers of the world's people live, big cities, Bloomberg Philanthropies has embarked on an ambitious expansion of its global health work—building on what it's learned after years of funding on tobacco and road safety.   

Meanwhile, as we've reported, the foundation has been implementing another key piece of its global health work by investing in better data. In 2015, Bloomberg Philanthropies put up $100 million to support the Data for Health Initiative. Working in partnership with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the four-year project is helping governments, public health leaders, aid organizations and nonprofits by funding new methods, tools and systems for gathering more accurate health data. As that effort bears fruit, it should yield insights that help advance the global health efforts of both Bloomberg Philanthropies and other institutions working in this area. 

Taken together, Bloomberg Philanthropies is forging a distinctive approach to reducing preventable deaths worldwide—one that complements the work of the two other giants in global health philanthropy, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Bloomberg's giving remains well below that of these two grantmakers. But with a fortune of nearly $50 billion, it's quite possible that his giving could come to approach that of these two foundations once he's put in place in the infrastructure to move more money out the door.