In the 1960s, dubbed the “Development Decade” by the United Nations, Henry J. Kaiser’s enterprises were literally all over the map. Kaiser’s companies were mining bauxite for aluminum in Jamaica, manufacturing cars in Argentina and Brazil and working on a huge hydroelectric project and aluminum smelting plant on the Volta River in the emerging West African country of Ghana.
Kaiser Engineers were also building a dam on the Bandama River in Ivory Coast, West Africa, as well as undertaking projects in various parts of India, including construction of a dam, hydroelectric plant, an aluminum plant, a steel mill and a cement facility. Kaiser Engineers were involved with the Snowy Mountain project — construction of tunnels, aqueducts, dams and hydroelectric plants in the mountains of eastern Australia.
As in his American ventures, Henry Kaiser’s enterprises on foreign soil developed medical services for workers at the job sites and often in the community. In many places, including Australia, India, and Ghana, the government required Kaiser to build hospitals at each of the construction locations.
“In a sense, this was a recapitulation of the early experience of our domestic medical care program, which had its origins in providing health care for workmen and their families at construction sites in the Western United States,” wrote James P. Hughes, MD, Kaiser Industries vice president of Health Services in 1972.
Clifford Keene, MD, Kaiser Permanente president at the time, was thrilled to participate in the launching of medical care projects in foreign lands.
“I went to Australia several times because Kaiser Engineers were involved in the Snowy Mountain Project and I was involved in the location and construction of hospitals there. . .I went to India twice, once for a period of almost a month. I found myself in places with exotic names, Uttar, Pradesh, Mysore, and Jamshedpur.
"So all of this was going on and it was just a big, spreading, challenging, wonderful, exhilarating kind of existence. While we were having all the troubles in the Permanente Medical Program (in California), getting reorganized, I was involved in these other challenges, which gave me satisfaction and sort of balanced the scales against the frustrations of dealing with the Permanente program.”
Ernest Saward, MD, medical director of Kaiser Permanente’s Oregon Region, traveled to Argentina in 1960 to help establish a medical care program for Kaiser automobile workers in Cordoba and Buenos Aires. Saward said the Argentines didn’t trust the Kaiser organization initially and expected the company to superimpose a foreign health system on the community.
“The reaction back from Argentina was, ‘You folks in California put some millions in this and build us a hospital and everything will be all right.’ From what I’d already learned, I saw that if (Kaiser in partnership with the Argentines) put any millions in a hospital it would be confiscated within months. That was the nature of Argentina at the time. They play rough. Now I never personally got shot at; I was only threatened with a saber,” Saward said with a laugh in a 1986 oral history.
Saward and his artist wife managed over time to infiltrate the Argentine culture and make essential contacts for Kaiser. “They saw that we were somebody they could relate to, that (we) wanted to understand them and to understand what I would call their general, cultural events, and not be an isolated colony.
“They began to entertain us, and I spent hours lying on the living room floor, drinking red wine in front of a fireplace with these guys, until they finally understood what it was we were trying to do, and once they really got a feeling for what we wanted to do, they said, ‘Let’s do it’. We did it with the best medical group in town and with the best hospital in town, and it’s still going (1986) and it cost us in toto, $55,000.
“What had to be done in Argentina was to make an indigenous plan and not a foreign plan and (to make it go) it had to be done as an indigenous plan by what were respected elements in the community. (That’s how) we did it,” Saward said.
As Kaiser Industries continued to work abroad into the 1960s and 1970s, the challenges for providing health care kept coming.
This was a period when African nations were gaining their independence, and the international community was interested in promoting industrial development to improve the economies of all underdeveloped countries. With new industry and its attendant growth, the budding nations were struggling to provide essential services to their citizens, both natives and newly arrived workers and their families.
To address these issues, seven hundred industrialists from 70 nations gathered in the San Francisco Bay Area in September of 1969 to figure out how to close the gap between the “have” and “have not” nations.
“There was much talk about the responsibilities of private enterprise in developing countries; about the need for more effective allocation of resources; about the need for business to interact with the society in which it finds itself,” noted KP President Clifford Keene in a talk to the Industrial Council for Tropical Health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston in 1969.
Kaiser’s people learned the hard way what this meant. In Ghana on the Volta Dam project, Kaiser leaders discovered pretty quickly that — despite the government’s well-laid plans — the company needed to initiate environmental programs to ensure safe water and pest-control measures to protect workers from the spread of debilitating disease.
Once the dam was completed, Kaiser began construction on a smelter plant to manufacture aluminum. “. . .the first responsibility was to provide care for the work injuries, since the existing health care facilities in the town were grossly overburdened,” wrote Hughes.
For these foreign projects, many necessitating brand new cities or towns, Kaiser’s goal was to establish health care facilities for its workers, their families and often for the community at large. Hughes said in most countries where Kaiser had developments health care services had to be introduced in waves, depending on available services. Often, sanitation and safe water needs and the dire need for training of locals in basic care methods were the first priorities.
To provide health services, Kaiser Industries initially engaged the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care program. By 1964, however, Kaiser leaders realized the need for a separate entity and established the not-for-profit Kaiser Foundation International (KFI) to administer the foreign medical care programs. With Kaiser Permanente’s reputation on the rise, requests for consulting help started to come from places where Kaiser Industries didn’t already have a presence.
Between 1964 and 1969, the international group was engaged for medical care projects in 15 African countries. By 1975, KFI had been hired and paid for projects in 30 countries around the globe, including rural locations in California, Utah and West Virginia.