An unexpected phone call in January 1995 during an otherwise routine day for an aerospace executive transformed a life and career. Schlansky, an executive in McDonnell Douglas’ (now Boeing) Washington, DC office, represented the company on international trade issues when he received a request to help secure an airplane to fly medicine and medical supplies on a humanitarian mission to Vietnam. The call came from U.S. Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond from Missouri, on behalf of a constituent, and it marked the beginning of Schlansky’s global quest to engage corporations to invest in responsible global economic development. Little did he know at the time, but Mark Schlansky would form a new nonprofit international organization that would focus on corporate responsibility in developing countries.
Schlansky had met U.S. Senator “Kit” Bond before. In November 1994, they had a discussion about various trade issues, since the Senator was from the corporation’s home state of Missouri. One of the problem areas was the US Export-Import Bank not providing export credits to Vietnam to finance purchases from US manufacturers. McDonnell Douglas wanted to sell its commercial airplanes to Vietnam, as the European competition had already been successful in placing aircraft there. The issue ultimately took a few more years to resolve, but the senator clearly remembered that the company was interested in Vietnam.
Remembering McDonnell Douglas’ interest in placing commercial aircraft in Vietnam, a staff member from the senator’s office called Schlansky to learn about obtaining an aircraft for a humanitarian airlift of medicines and medical supplies to Vietnam. The question was posed by a constituent that was organizing an airlift in conjunction with a small nonprofit.
Mark Schlansky saw the request as a unique marketing opportunity for the company while helping the nonprofit and the Vietnamese people. It was also a way to begin to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War. If a McDonnell Douglas commercial freighter could be obtained and operated by one of its customers, it would provide a great opportunity to present not only McDonnell Douglas in a positive light, but also the customer airline that would provide the aircraft. After conversations with colleagues about which customer airlines might be interested in participating in a humanitarian effort, it was decided that Fed Ex would be a good candidate. Fed Ex had just opened a small office in Vietnam and was at the early stages of developing a market there.
The Chairman of Fed Ex, Fred Smith, was asked by McDonnell Douglas if he would be interested in supporting a humanitarian airlift. Smith, a former US Marine and a Vietnam veteran, jumped at the idea and donated the use of an MD-11 freighter to fly the medicines. The flight path was cleared for airlift to take off. Mark Schlansky worked with a Midwestern nonprofit to raise significant funding for the project. McDonnell Douglas/Boeing provided funding for the project, along with several other US corporations that wanted to begin working in Vietnam.
In April 1995, on the twentieth anniversary of the end of the war, the first American aircraft to land in Vietnam landed in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City carrying with it not only tons of medicines for the Vietnamese people, but the best wishes of Americans for a future of peace, health, and happiness.
Inspired by the corporate response, and continuing the efforts that began with the first airlift, Schlansky founded Uplift International in 1997 to promote corporate social responsibility and develop sustainable health programs that contribute to economic development in developing countries.
Uplift International expanded its scope of work with additional humanitarian and medical assistance projects in Vietnam and during the depths of the Asian economic crisis in 1998, expanded its programs to Indonesia. Schlansky knew that emergency humanitarian aid, including donations of needed medical commodities, were critical to disaster-affected populations. He also knew that over the long-term, it was necessary to create more sustainable, capacity building programs to improve the health and economic well being of developing countries, such as Vietnam and Indonesia. The expansion into Indonesia was in conjunction with the US-ASEAN Business Council and its member companies.
Building on the relationships developed during the humanitarian airlifts of medicines to Vietnam and Indonesia, Uplift International continues to develop stronger and more collaborations with universities, governments, professional organizations, NGOs and the business community. These collaborations bring much needed technical expertise to the areas of maternal and child health, health and human rights, medical and public health education, including telemedicine. American corporations and foundations are the principle donors for these programs, as they understand the local, regional, and global benefits that are derived from their investment in Uplift’s programs.
Uplift International is now integrating a rights-based approach into all of its humanitarian assistance program activities while expanding our Health and Human Rights programs. Social, cultural and economic rights are essential elements for successful economic development and need to be integrated into CSR activities.
Macroeconomic analysis shows that countries with the weakest conditions of health and education have a much harder time achieving sustained growth compared to countries with better access to health and educational services. Healthy people are more productive. Investments in capacity building health and education programs foster a healthier and more stable society by directly investing in the people that build, buy, or service a company’s product. Poor population health is a major impediment to economic growth within a single country and may also have world-wide implications.