The Lifebuoy brand, part of the Unilever group of companies, is at the heart of a development private-public partnership aiming at promoting basic hygiene habits, such as soap handwashing, in rural areas of Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Avinish Jain, Social Mission Manager, Lifebuoy, Unilever.
Avinish Jain, Social Mission Manager, Lifebuoy, Unilever.

Unilever, through its health soap brand Lifebuoy, aims to improve the hygiene behavior of 1 billion people by 2020. In 2014, they joined a consortium funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to improve the health and hygiene of 6.6 million people in Bangladesh and Pakistan. What can be learned from this Public-Private Partnership (PPP) so far? Find out more about the partnership in our interview with Avinish Jain, Social Mission Manager, Lifebuoy, Unilever.

How did this partnership come about?

DFID put out to tender funding for a project to improve Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in specific countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh. They encouraged a public-private consortium model to partner and bid for the funding to improve the impact of the development programmes.

Lifebuoy runs one of the world’s largest handwashing behaviour change programmes and has a proven track record with changing handwashing behaviours through our evidence based model. With our experience, expertise and our public goal – to change the hygiene behavior of one billion consumers – we were in a discussion with a number of NGOs interested in forming a development public-private partnership. While we have partnered with organisations before, this was a first of a kind consortium for Lifebuoy. From there, Lifebuoy developed a joint bid with Plan International, a NGO focused on driving positive change in children’s lives, and WaterAid, a NGO that transforms lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation. Both these organisations build in strong community outreach and government relationships


What does the partnership aim to achieve?

The overall aim is to promote the sustained use of hygienic household toilets, and the practice of handwashing with soap at critical times in rural communities in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Overall 6.6 million people will be impacted by the programme. Lifebuoy’s contribution is to change the hygiene behaviours of 4.1 million people in Bangladesh and 750,000 people in Pakistan.

The partners are working together to deliver a WASH project with tangible, measurable and sustained impact, ultimately improving the health and well-being in the communities we are working in. Handwashing is one of the most cost-effective investments in public health. Disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) are a unit of measurement that combines data about years of life lost and years lived with a disability to help define the burden of any particular disease. DALYs help us measure the effectiveness of health interventions and compare interventions. Handwashing with soap has been shown to be the most effective way to avert DALYs associated with diarrheal diseases and pneumonia, which are the top two causes of child deathsLifebuoy aims to build handwashing behaviors, making an impact on child mortality by reducing preventable diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia.

What is your interest in working in such a consortium?

A consortium allows multiple partners to bring their expertise to the table.

Changing handwashing behavior requires a huge effort from all sectors of society to work together to effect a change in deeply entrenched hygiene habits. This is why public private partnerships are effective in approaching handwashing behavior change programmes more holistically. By sharing our skills and experiences with our partners through activities and education campaigns, we can help build expertise in communicating the importance of handwashing with soap and driving behavior change – a task that requires collaboration. We work with our partners to communicate to some of the hardest to reach members of society, influence policies that make a difference for handwashing at scale and to monitor and evaluate our programmes. By working with government, schools, and teachers, Lifebuoy has been able to scale up its programmes. Partnerships such as these help in implementation of sustainable models.

What do you see as the role of public-private partnerships (PPPs) in solving development and public health issues?

Different organizations and institutions have niche areas of experience and expertise. Each public health issue is multifaceted and working with different partners helps approach a problem more holistically.

The private sector has great consumer understanding and the ability, coupling this with strong marketing skills, the sector is able to find innovative solutions to issues.

NGOs have a thorough understanding of the on-the-ground reality and norms and are skilled at working with Governments through their far reaching networks. They can also have a substantial influence on policy.

Leveraging these factors, private-public partnerships bring together diverse perspectives and skillsets to deliver the real, sustained development impact these kind of programmes aim to achieve. Programmes can be attuned to consumers, brought to scale and ensure a much bigger impact. When planned carefully they bring together the best of all sectors, from practitioners in the field to policy-makers, marketing experts to measurement experts, paving the way for truly effective interventions.


What has Lifebuoy brought to this public-private partnership?

As a brand, Lifebuoy brings marketing, behavior change expertise, consumer understanding and a huge geographic reach. It is the world’s number one selling antibacterial soap[1], sold in more than 58 countries. Our School of 5 programmes has changed the handwashing behavior of children across Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Since 2010, we have taught over 337 million people handwashing habits. Our behavior change model has been developed by child experts, academics, public health and marketing experts. It has been evaluated and therefore is an evidence based model.

Thanks to constant innovation such as our colour changing handwash, we are making hand hygiene easier and more fun for children so that they are more likely to adopt good handwashing habits from a young age. We share germ protection and hygiene education messages in all our marketing initiatives and ensure that these messages are easy to understand and attractive to a consumer audience. As part of a larger corporate – Unilever – we also bring access to research capacity, supply chains and logistics, good processes and management expertise. Lifebuoy has got a lot of experience delivering projects at a large scale and with a lot of speed – these skills are invaluable when it comes to delivering development and public health interventions.

What are some of the challenges in running a successful public-private partnership?

It’s important to make sure that you share the same common goal as your partners and also acknowledge the different expertise each one is bringing to the platform. All of our public-private consortium was focused, above all, on improving handwashing and other WASH behaviours including handwashing with soap and this common goal meant that despite our different ways of working we wanted to work together for the benefit of the programme and its beneficiaries. This mattered above everything else.

Agreeing parameters, language, outcomes, contingencies and measurement of these early is key, as is allowing time for a proper collaborative decision-making process. However, it is very important to really understand your partner organisations and their secondary goals. For example, Plan have their own child policy which they wanted us to align on. It’s very important that you all know each other’s secondary goals and that all partners get what they care about.

We learned a lot in this first experience about communicating and working together, and we will integrate this learning in future projects. For example, it is important to be clear on what your organisations view as the desired outcomes. Once you start working together you need to communicate effectively and often. This helps to iron out any confusion and deal with any problems that arise.

In the ideal situation you will have good communications channels with your funder so you can adapt your approach as the project progresses and you discover some unexpected realities (there will be some!).


Why is a hygiene indicator important in the Sustainable Development Goals indicators?

We had been advocating for a hygiene indicator to be included in the final Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because, as I mentioned earlier, handwashing with soap is one of the single most cost effective public health intervention.

Including an indicator in the SDGs will put handwashing with soap on national and local policy agendas around the world, and hopefully make hand hygiene a common preventative measure rather than being an afterthought. The ‘H’ (for hygiene) in WASH cannot be forgotten. It is a fundamental issue that impacts individuals’ and communities’ wellbeing, economies and educational outcomes. It is genuinely important to billions of people.


[1] Nielsen through its Scantrack and Retail Index Services for the Skin Cleansing Category (Bar, Liquid Soap, Shower): Anti-Bacterial/Health Brands Volumes Sales 12 months to March 2015.

The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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