Reaching the Health Millennium Development Goals: The Critical Role of India's Business Sector

Having worked on initiatives which incorporated CSR into business, I understand that such interventions make business sense for the corporate house, while creating social value. So I rallied to participate in Reaching the Health Millennium Development Goals: The Critical Role of India's Business Sector, a business forum organized by GBCHealth and the MDG Health Alliance. 

Do celebrities bring value to advocacy for health? 

The forum started with a media frenzy on the arrival of Ms. Nita Ambani, Chairperson of the Reliance Foundation, and Ms. Priyanka Chopra, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. The shutterbugs swamped them, most to disappear once the celebrities delivered their key note speeches. The newspapers also quoted them profusely in their reports the next day. 

As difficult as it may be, having been engaged in grassroot level work, to see celebrities take the limelight, they do bring a great value through information dissemination and awareness building. Their presence (through active or passive engagements) puts a spotlight on the issue at hand, which is the first step towards addressing it. Their engagement draws the attention of funders and practitioners to the issues, creating a better response. All in all, I felt that the presence of these two ladies upped the ante on the issue of the health MGDs, a critical need to accelerate action to make up for lost time.

India is unlikely to reach the health MDGs—corporate partnerships can speed progress 

And the spotlight on the health MGDs was certainly warranted. Working in the sector on specific issues of social development, in specific geographical areas, you sometimes miss the bigger picture. I saw the work that my organization does in a different light when seen through the lens of MGD achievement gap. I learned at the forum that India is unlikely to reach its health MDG goals: MDG 5 – to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters by 2015 – will be missed; and MDG 4 – to reduce under 5 mortality by two-thirds by 2015 will be hard to reach. I realised that as much as we do, it is not enough and we need to do more, do it more quickly and more creatively. When you see the raw data at such forums it instils the urgency to find solutions.

Some remarks and questions from the audience following presentations by corporate houses (Britannia, Novartis, Lifespring Hospitals, Bharti Biotech) got me thinking, that the social sector needs to understand that such initiatives provide a win-win for all parties concerned, rather than question businesses that make money while generating social value. If Britannia provides nutrition fortified cookies through the mid-day-meal scheme, or Bharti Biotech markets affordable rotavirus vaccine for reduction of severe rotavirus diarrhoea in children under one year of age, they are playing to their strengths, to the market they know well, and to strong supply channels that reach end beneficiaries. A lot of R&D goes into development of these products and supply chains. Companies may well increase their market share and increase earnings through these initiatives, but they are also creating a strong social value in the process. Business and profits do not necessarily imply exploitation if they are socially responsible. The development sector still has to awaken to this reality. This mindset needs to change if the divide between development and business is to be bridged to leverage all potential opportunities.

Behavior change campaigns led by Bajao, Lifebuoy, and Sesame 

My favourite session of the forum was on messaging for behaviour change. The session showed the prowess of the media in spreading ideas on healthy behaviour. Increasingly, mobile and communication tools are being employed which capture the interest of the public and have the potential to make a change. The Breakthrough Bell Bajao campaign addressing domestic violence, the Lifebuoy advertisement on hand-washing, and the Sesame workshops that work with children were examples that were shared, that showed ways of accelerating behaviour change, given the reach and the interest generated by media. As a clip on the insertion of health care messages into a very popular entertainment programme was played, I realised how effective these message could be, given the draw these programmes have on viewers, where the characters, who are seen day in and day out, become a part of their lives. Since women are a large audience of these programmes, the messages are well targeted.

The forum was successful in drawing representatives of private companies, corporate foundations, government, not for profit organisations and media and communication organisations, all committed to support or implement social interventions in health. It afforded us the opportunity to meet and network, share our programmes and learn from one another—critical elements to accelerate impact. 

Read a summary of the event from GBCHealth here. Photo above: Outside an Operation ASHA TB clinic. Photo by Andre J.P. Fanthome for CHMI.