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What washing your hands can teach you about global change

Schoolchildren in Peru wash their hands to celebrate Global Handwashing Day. Image: REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Paul Polman
Chief Executive Officer, Unilever
Myriam Sidibe
Senior Fellow, Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School
Val Curtis
Director of the Environmental Health Group, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

On a recent Monday morning, 20-year-old Sharon Mong’are put on her “Hero for Change” T-shirt and made her way to a health clinic in Kenya to teach new mothers about the importance of washing their hands with soap. It was Oct. 15th, Global Handwashing Day, and hundreds of volunteers like Sharon were deployed in clinics, crèches and schools all over Kenya to share this life-saving habit. In the clinic, Sharon sprinkled “Glo Germ” on one of the mothers’ hands, a substance that makes germs glow under U.V. light. The mother’s visceral experience of seeing the hidden germs that lurked on her unwashed hands was only one of Sharon’s many convincing arguments.

Sharon, a student at Kenyatta University, is part of the Heroes for Change programme, which trains youth to volunteer and learn skills concerning social issues that affect their communities. One of its causes is Global Handwashing Day, the result of a coalition between public health experts, NGOs and soap companies.

According to the World Health Organisation, washing your hands with soap is the most cost-effective public health intervention there is. But only one in six people globally wash their hands after going to the toilet or before preparing food or eating, risking the spread of deadly infections.

Private-sector involvement has been fundamental to Global Handwashing Day from the outset. Corporate members of the partnership are not sponsors or supporters; rather, they are crucial to the design and independent delivery of successful programmes like Heroes for Change. Commercial organisations bring not just resources, but ways of thinking that are invaluable to development efforts. Some of these are tangible: technology, products and human capital, for example. Just as important, though, are the intangibles, from the entrepreneurial mind-set that blossoms in business, to the drive to hunt out neat solutions to nasty problems. When selling more soap equates with better health, we can build collaborations that are there for the long run, growing the consumer base and improving health. This is good news for the reduction of global poverty.

 

This type of active co-operation is embedded in Sustainable Development Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals. When organisations with different ways of working, different motivations and different resources come together for a common purpose, these goals become achievable.

In the ten years since Global Handwashing Day was first celebrated, it has helped many communities prevent avoidable child deaths. While development projects often fade away when funding ends, the commercial return in this case helps to keep things going. Unilever’s soap brand, “Lifebuoy”, is a founding partner of Global Handwashing Day. Since launching its social mission to improve hand hygiene, Lifebuoy has been one of Unilever’s fastest-growing brands, reaching over 420 million people with handwashing programs. The “Help a Child Reach 5” campaign pioneered a social-media-led approach to advocacy, successfully using creative communications to encourage better hygiene among young mothers, midwives, and other key groups with a responsibility for child health. Lifebuoy’s activities have also provided a map for other brands in the company’s portfolio to follow. In 2017, Unilever’s “Sustainable Living Brands” (those linking social purpose to business growth) grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of its turnover growth.

Here is an example of how capitalism can create wider benefits, helping both business and society win. Competitive markets can be a useful catalyst for innovation. Some innovations will be more costly or complicated than washing hands. But the principle that multi-sectoral actions increase the potential of organisations to create essential change remains. It’s a principle worth bearing in mind as over 500 million people in 100 countries celebrate the life-saving power of washing their hands with soap.

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