Handwashing With Soap Can Help Us Achieve the Millennium Development Goals

Being able to live a clean, active and healthy life should be a basic human right. Yet, this is not a privilege that everyone has -- a point underscored by two high level reports last week.
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Being able to live a clean, active and healthy life should be a basic human right. Yet, this is not a privilege that everyone has -- a point underscored by two high level reports last week.

UNICEF's latest report reminds us that pneumonia and diarrhoea are the biggest killers of children globally, causing the deaths of approximately two million children under the age of five, every year. Meanwhile the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that despite significant progress, the world is unlikely to meet the fourth Millennium Development Goal -- to reduce child mortality by two-thirds from 1990 levels.

Both reports come at a critical point in time: the world has less than three years to scale-up efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. At Unilever we want to scale-up our own efforts on this front.

UNICEF's report points to areas where business can help achieve the fourth Millennium Development Goal. Not only can diarrhoea and pneumonia be prevented through basic best practices, including frequent handwashing with soap at key occasions, but also more awareness raising campaigns could reduce deaths caused by pneumonia by 30 percent and diarrhoea by 60 percent -- potentially saving more than two million children by 2015. This would be a significant progress in the aim to achieve the fourth Millennium Development Goal and reduce infant mortality.

Although we're seeing a steady increase in awareness raising campaigns that demonstrate the link between health and good hygiene -- from the WHO's Clean Care is Safe Care programme through to the Global Public Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap -- more needs to be done to ensure that governments prioritise hygiene education programmes.

Just as we know that prevention is better than cure, we also know that business has an important role to play. For this reason, Unilever is committed to the biggest handwashing with soap campaign the world has ever seen.

By 2020, Lifebuoy, the world's leading soap brand, aims to change the handwashing behaviour of over one billion consumers. To help achieve this ambitious target we started running behaviour change programmes with partners including PSI, which is dedicated to improving the health of people in the developing world, and UNICEF across the world. So far, we have programmes in 16 countries and have changed the behaviour of 48 million people. The next step for us now is to look at ways to further scale up our programmes and reach even more people.

Where we can, we work with governments on public health because we know we can make an even greater impact. For example, in Indonesia, we work with the Ministry of Education -- and next year we are due to teach an estimated 4.5 million schoolchildren about the benefits of handwashing with soap at crucial times during the day.

It's also worth putting the spotlight on some of the amazing efforts being made in Nigeria as it has the second highest number of diarrheal related deaths in children under the age of five globally behind India.

Over the past 15 months we've successfully rolled-out initiatives ranging from organizing a Health Symposium with the Federal Government and the National Infection Control Agency (NICA), and through to partnerships with Government State Education Boards & Churches to directly reach over 200,000 households with health soap bars, and last year, we even broke a Guinness Book of Record by getting 37,809 children to wash their hands at the same time and in the same location.

But we're not stopping there! Our goal is to reach 70 million Nigerians with handwashing with soap behavior change programs as a part of Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) by 2015, so we're going to continue to generate buzz and awareness in communities across Nigeria to bring safety, security and health through the active promotion of handwashing with soap.

For Unilever, the moral case is clear -- we know we can improve and save lives through our products and by changing behaviour. Moreover, the business incentive is clear -- our Sustainable Living Plan commits us to doubling the size of our business while improving our impact on society.

The UNICEF and WHO reports remind us that our end goal is in sight. However we achieve the Millennium Development Goals -- business, governments and civil society must continue to collaborate both in policy and programme making.

Together we can work to make a difference and save the lives of over two million children.

Myriam Sidibe, Global Social Mission Director, Unilever-Lifebuoy

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