COVID-19 has highlighted global interdependencies like no other crisis ever has before. As world leaders grapple with the delicate balance of managing the spread of the virus while simultaneously helping to breathe life into deeply troubled economies, we need to face the extent of the fallout and embrace a broader COVID-19 response through public-private collaboration.
The World Food Programme has projected that 265 million people will face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020—up from its original 135 million projection in 2019. In Africa, nations are losing vast amounts of human and economic capital from millions of people becoming ill or not reaching their full potential simply because of one issue—undernutrition.
‘What we need is a cohesive effort through a partner network covering national governments, donor agencies, investors, and corporations’
Some 50 percent of the 800,000 annual pneumonia deaths in children under five have undernutrition as an underlying factor. Undernourished children become undernourished adults, and their weakened contributions to the workforce or as consumers cannot be ignored. A stunted workforce makes for a stunted economy. These are some of the issues that The Power of Nutrition, the foundation I lead, has been championing for years. What we need is a cohesive effort through a partner network covering national governments, donor agencies, investors, and corporations. We face serious setbacks if philanthropists and the development community continue to respond to COVID-19 in an uncoordinated, competing, and fragmented way and channel funds towards singular solutions.
Building Resilience Through Behavioral Change
Getting nutrition right in the years ahead is a real possibility. Much of the answer lies in the role of businesses and their role in building markets, infrastructure and, importantly, influencing human behaviors that help societies prosper and become more resilient. Governments do not create jobs. That is the role of the private sector. Governments provide a level playing field and the legislation by which infrastructure is advanced. They establish land rights and enforce the rule of law – thus progressing a framework by which the private sector and the wider society can flourish.
‘You can change the way an individual behaves though a variety of interventions’
Changing the behavior of either an individual or the community in which they live is at best challenging as they are often deep-rooted and culturally complex. You can change the way an individual behaves though a variety of interventions. These range from compensation and taxation to legislation and education—and, of course, aspiration—a cognitive journey shaped by the private sector. As with many behavior changing interventions, they tend to work best in unison rather than individually.
The Power of Nutrition funds several behavior change interventions—the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding and handwashing with soap being two. We know that handwashing with soap remains the most effective way to stop bacteria and viruses from being transmitted from hand to mouth, and this simple solution is an effective means of dramatically reducing disease burdens, from diarrhea to COVID-19. Over the past few months, we have seen a significant amplification of advice around the benefits of handwashing with soap. As a preventative measure against a global pandemic, what has been achieved in a mere one hundred days would under most circumstances have taken a decade. Yet cementing this behavior into our daily lives, especially within vulnerable, remote, and low-income communities will remain a challenge.
The Role of Businesses in Creating Societal Change
This begs a bigger question at this challenging time for us all—what is the role of the private sector in advancing interventions such as handwashing with soap, that some see as solely lying in the domain of the public sector?
One of the main issues we face is that no matter how much effort, money, or time The Power of Nutrition or the development community allocates to the promotion of handwashing with soap, our efforts will never make it an ‘aspirational’ activity or make soap an aspirational product.
‘Some governments and public sector bodies seem paralyzed as to how to collaborate’
Marketing a behavior change intervention is best undertaken by those with the greatest skills and experience. As the world’s biggest soap company, Unilever knows more about handwashing with soap than probably any other institution on the planet. As industry leaders, they have amassed market data on context-driven portion size, price points, advertising, distribution, and product composition. They also have the muscle to roll out new products to new markets. Yet some governments and public sector bodies seem paralyzed as to how to collaborate with the companies and brands like Unilever who are best positioned to facilitate the very behavior changes we collectively agree work for the good of the wider society.
Why is this the case? It might come down to a commonly held perception that to partner with the private sector is to abandon being true to the cause. Or, worse, a perception that we – in development – are somehow failing those most at risk and instead helping businesses gain access to a section of society that we desire to be in need of aid—maybe forever. This is the sort of cynical, anti-business positioning that, without the needy, development would be out of a job. That is a pro-poverty perspective that we all need to discard.
‘That is a pro-poverty perspective we all need to discard’
At last year’s United Nations General Assembly, The Power of Nutrition and Unilever announced a strategic partnership to promote handwashing with soap through the Lifebuoy Brand. We will be using mobile technology to reach women and children in hard-to-reach rural communities in India to emphasize the benefits of handwashing with soap and, importantly, combine this communication with other critical nutrition messaging. The program combines digital technology and education in a cost-effective way to reach large volumes of people quickly. This partnership is a great example of how collaboration can be achieved between private and public sector alliances.
The successful implementation of programs is only assisted by the work and competencies found in the private sector—and this goes beyond simply funding projects. Long gone are the days where corporations simply wrote large unrestricted checks—if indeed they ever existed at all.
We believe corporations can bring unique expertise that helps strengthen our programming, attract other investors and provides an important perspective on the ripple effect of tackling undernutrition.
Building Back Better, Together
Harnessing the power of the private sector will be key to strengthening health, food, and social systems that can weather future pandemics and crises.
‘It is time that businesses and the public sector join forces’
In doing so we accept that we face adversaries and will come across those who believe that nutrition and health interventions are best addressed in silos. Our goal is to help shift this mindset and shape new models where the private and public sectors can maximize each other’s expertise, reach, and resources, without compromising on what is important. What is at stake if we do not collaborate effectively does not bear thinking about. It is time that businesses and the public sector join forces to channel funds and expertise in a cohesive approach that goes beyond COVID-19 and builds back more resilient, healthier generations.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The author is CEO of The Power of Nutrition, a global charitable foundation that partners with governments, NGOs, civil society, investors, and businesses—including Unilever, mentioned in this article—on strategic programs to address undernutrition through core health interventions including handwashing with soap.