April 23, 2020, by Aarin Palomares, Deputy Director, Global Handwashing Partnership (FHI 360)


There is often a misconception that the private sector has no role in public health. However, the private sector can be a valuable partner in addressing poverty, injustice, and inequality around the world. Especially in times of crisis, companies work in tandem with governments, public authorities, and other stakeholders to address public health issues and support sustainable systems.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created a humanitarian and economic crisis and provides a call to action for stronger and more resilient public health systems. Government leadership is crucial – that we know. However, companies and civil society organizations also play a vital role in working together to respond to this immediate crisis. For two years, I have worked for a public-private partnership housed at FHI 360. Private sector engagement, especially through public-private partnerships like the Global Handwashing Partnership, can play a significant role in developing both immediate and long-term solutions. 

The business case for public health

faucet soap hand washing fountain previewThere is a clear link between tackling public health issues and business motivations. Despite global progress, 5.3 million children died before the age of 5 in 2018. Diarrheal disease and pneumonia remain two of the biggest causes of child mortality, yet research suggests the simple act of handwashing can reduce mortality by up to 50%. The social issue is clear: too many children die before their fifth birthday. The business opportunity is equally clear for businesses like P&G and Unilever; both soap manufacturers are partners of the Global Handwashing Partnership.

Companies are often quite transparent about their commercial interest in tackling a social issue. The reality is that they need to be. As you can imagine, it can be difficult to portray these two objectives – saving children and increasing profits – without some resistance from those with a strong social public sector background. However, this transparency builds external credibility and the reassurance that these companies are invested in this issue beyond publicity. Because hand hygiene is inherently engrained in their business ambitions, it naturally aligns with their social goals.


The social case for private sector

Public-private partnerships provide an effective model for handwashing programs because they combine the health objectives of the public sector with the marketing and supply chain expertise of the private sector. While the private sector stands to gain market expansion, the public sector gains from resources of the industry. In the current context, for example, companies are leveraging their current supply chains to provide access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) through their products, laboratories, expert advisors, and key workers who are providing essential public utility services.

Moreover, through their social impact missions, companies can play a major role in developing and sharing rapid solutions with households, frontline health workers, and policy makers. Most recently, Colgate-Palmolive, Essity, P&G, and Unilever worked with public sector partners to develop communications materials in response to the growing need for WASH-specific guidance around COVID-19. This idea that a large company helping marginalized and vulnerable communities may seem foreign, but using local brands that communities know and trust can be an accepted approach to educate them about a topic like hygiene.
Girls washing hands as part of global handwashing day.

Reflections from a public health perspective

Over the past two years, I’ve grown to appreciate the value that private sector partners have to offer. Based on my experience, here are some of my thoughts on the role of the private sector in public health:

  • Broad coalitions are necessary to provide coordinated and unified programming. Coalitions that connect community networks, such as schools and community organizations, provide a mechanism to amplify messages and strategies to reach all individuals, even the most vulnerable. The Kenyan National Business Compact on Coronavirus is a good example of how these coalitions can support and amplify the work being done by the Ministries.
  • The private sector has a voice. Harnessing the power of private sector brands can achieve immediate impact. Most recently, the private sector constituency of Sanitation and Water for All called on all governments to take the lead and prioritize WASH during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The role of the private sector is crucial, now more than ever. To help countries solve their own development challenges, USAID developed a policy framework called the Journey to Self-Reliance. This calls for innovative financing beyond the more traditional aid mechanisms. Private sector engagement is essential to this framework.

Engaging with the private sector may be key to the innovative and sustainable solutions we often seek. Whether we like it or not, the private sector has a growing role in public health and human development, and perhaps they are doing more good than we give them credit for.