There were two promising agendas discussed at this year’s World Economic Forum, where global finance and business leaders rub elbows every January, with some social entrepreneurs and NGOs like mine thrown in the mix.

First, the population taboo was broken.

At panel discussions around the planet’s 7 billion population threshold and environmental sustainability questions, participants are slowly but steadily finding ways to talk about an issue that for too long has been considered off-limits in gatherings like this.


View Photo Gallery: Once again, the world’s richest and most powerful get together in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Meeting the unmet need for modern contraception on the part of women around the world is understood to be important, vitally important, to the trajectory the world’s population takes during the next several decades.

Are we heading toward 8 billion by mid-century? Or 10.5 billion? Not only is that difference significant, it is also something we can do things about. Demography is not destiny, necessarily. Nor is a planet with more than 10 billion inhabitants inevitable.

Second, it’s now understood that global health is good for business.

There’s been a striking effort on the part of the world’s largest for-profit enterprises to seek out and define the “shared value” playing field, with non-profits and the public sector. The “for-benefit enterprise” about which the Harvard Business Review and others have written seems to be on the minds of many participants here at Davos.

Frankly, neither my non-profit side of this conversation, nor the for-profit side, really knows exactly how this will look and work in practice. We should not fool ourselves that this is an easy area of collaboration and mutual benefit in which to operate. Satisfying shareholders while also achieving measurable social outcomes at scale is a promising field that’s been studied and experimented with by many great thinkers, and doers. But I doubt it’s ever been as front-and-center in the conversations of global leaders who gather here in the Swiss Alps as it is this year.

For us at Population Services International, getting the right incentives for the for-profit entrepreneurs in global health — be they small individual medical providers in rural Kenya, or large multinational pharmaceutical companies with life-saving drugs against malaria, pneumonia, and cervical cancer — is critical to ensuring that health improvements in the developing world are sustained, and sustainable.

To reach the very poor, there may always be a need for public subsidy, either from host country governments or from international donors. With a slight shift in how we make health products and services available, we can have a tremendous impact. When we can use the market as a means to allocate that subsidy effectively, ensuring that only those who truly need free or highly subsidized interventions get them, while those who are able to pay something, do: We stimulate the market, expand the private sector, health improves and international funding needs are reduced.

Shared value, public-private partnerships that can work at scale, incentives that ensure interventions are self-sustaining and equitable — these are all issues getting refreshing attention at the 2012 World Economic Forum.

Karl Hofmann is the president and CEO of Population Services International.