Working with the Private Sector to Address Health Challenges

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By: Emily Puckart, Senior Program Assistant, MHTF

Presenters at the recent Woodrow Wilson International Center Policy Dialogue highlighted a number of viewpoints and experiences in the nonprofit and private sector working to address a variety of health challenges. The presentations and discussions among attendees lead me to the question: How can we best leverage private partnerships to the benefit of women and children facing undernutrition? Unfortunately, while the answer to this question remains difficult to discern, there are emerging case studies which demonstrate how nonprofits can successfully partner with private companies to address some health problems.

As I highlighted during a previous blog post, addressing undernutrition in women and children is most successful through a multi-sector approach. Since the underlying causes of undernutrition are varied, the remedies to address the problem must also cross programmatic sectors.

One more potential partner in a multi-sector approach to undernutrition may be the private sector. Nonprofits can potentially leverage the research and development capacity of private companies, as well as their expertise in profit driven markets when working to address health problems faced by women and children.

Laura McLaughlin, an environmental engineer at Cascade Designs, Inc. discussed the important lessons they have gleaned through their work with PATH on the Smart Electroclorinator. She highlighted the fact that private companies need to design products specifically for the end user in order to successfully sell their product. Products designed and produced by private companies to address health problems faced by women and children should also include them in their design process. Nonprofit organizations, which already work closely with end users in the field, can be unique partners in ensuring the needs of women are addressed by private companies. In this type of partnership, private companies can carefully tailor a product to a specific market, while women and children benefit from a product designed specifically for their needs.

Including the private sector is not without challenges. Hugh Chang, the Director of Special Initiatives at PATH noted that private companies do need to make reasonable profits. Certainly this must change the relationship with non-profits, who if they have committed themselves to working with the private sector, must also learn to concern themselves with business models and profit margins if the partnership is to be successful. The drive for profits must also influence the relationship between women and private companies, since women and children become not only a focus of a health intervention, but also a source of profits.

Despite the challenges in working with private partnerships, if these partnerships are sustained in the long-term, private partnerships could potentially have valuable expertise to offer women and children throughout the world, and the private sector may become a valuable partner in working to end undernutrition.