07/10/2013 06:38 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

A Public-Private Partnership Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Public-private partnerships were traditionally a one-sided relationship: a company provided the money to fund a project, which was designed, developed and implemented by an NGO. Today the relationship is much more balanced: the business-NGO partnership model is no longer about company funding and NGO expertise, but a collaboration where the partners come together to tackle the big issues.

Take hand washing as an example. Over two million children die every year from diarrhea and pneumonia, a simply unacceptable figure. However, the figure could be dramatically reduced if mothers and children hand wash with soap at key occasions. Put simply, hand washing with soap is the most cost-effective way to reduce childhood deaths and work towards Millennium Development Goal 4: reducing child mortality. Unilever, the owner of Lifebuoy, the world's leading health soap brand, is committed to the biggest public-private partnership to increase hand washing with soap that the world has ever seen. With Lifebuoy, we have the capacity, the commercial interest and above all the opportunity to reduce child mortality, and that's why we have implemented hand washing behavior change programs around the world.

By 2015, Lifebuoy aims to change the hand washing behavior of over one billion people. That's an ambitious number but Lifebuoy has a reach that many organizations can only dream of. Today, 119 mothers will choose Lifebuoy every second across Latin America, Asia and Africa, meaning a potential 7,140 mothers every minute choosing a brand that talks to them about how to protect their children from diarrhea and pneumonia through hand washing with soap. Suddenly, a billion people seems achievable, even using Lifebuoy's existing reach alone.

But we can get to scale more quickly and achieve more by working with partners. The NGOs we work with bring their experience working in communities and with marginalized groups to the programs we run across the world. These NGOs range from global organizations such as PSI, the Earth Institute Millennium Villages Project and USAID-MCHIP to national or local organizations: we work with whoever has strengths in the areas we have less expertise in and with whom we can work together to achieve joint goals.

A large part of the contribution private businesses can bring is their marketing expertise. Lifebuoy's marketing team creates award-winning campaigns such as 'Help a Child Reach 5' with our recent viral video telling the human story of a child reaching their 5th birthday. This marketing insight, along with our public health understanding, was used to develop our Lifebuoy School of 5 program and our Neonatal program encouraging children and new mothers to adopt healthy hand washing habits for life.

The UN High Level panel report this month recommended that global public-private partnerships must be a central part of the post-2015 development agenda. Public-private partnerships allow public institutions to leverage private capital, achieve scale and bring together different skill sets- the policy making and on-the-ground expertise of the public sector with the delivery capabilities and behavior change knowledge of private companies. However, despite the many successful examples, public-private partnerships can still be treated with suspicion by both parties. But with today's uncertain economic times meaning NGOs facing government cuts and reduced fundraising, public-private partnerships can offer a more viable future. If a business sees the commercial opportunity and a compelling business case, they're in it for the long run ensuring sustainable partnerships, which make the most of both parties' assets.

NGOs and businesses need to look at their strengths and their weaknesses and not only identify but also respect what each can bring to the table. Through sharing lessons and pooling resources and expertise, public-private partnerships allow private businesses and NGOs to achieve common goals. Like any good partnership, a public-private partnership between NGOs and private business will result in a whole greater than the sum of its parts.