By Dr. Christine Sow, Executive Director
Amazing progress has been made in dramatically cutting child deaths across the globe over the past 25 years. Just a few years ago we celebrated the fact that the number of annual deaths of children under five had fallen from 12.5 million deaths a year to below 10 million; by 2012 the number had fallen to 6.6 million annual deaths. Two major events took place in Washington D.C. on June 25th to celebrate progress made and assess existing challenges in ending preventable child and maternal deaths: Acting on the Call, a high level meeting organized by USAID in collaboration with UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the 5th Birthday and Beyond celebration of the U.S. government’s leadership in child survival and maternal health. And next week the analysis and discussions will continue at a multi-sectoral global summit of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health being held in Johannesburg South Africa.
The progress being considered at these meetings has been the result of many different actions and partnerships, not the least of which is the untraditional and one could say, unexpected emergence of the multi-sectoral partnership model in support of child survival and maternal health. With the emergence of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 90s and the realization of the toll HIV-related morbidity and mortality was taking on economic growth, corporations and large employers began to engage in workplace health schemes that went beyond traditional approaches. However they could not do this alone – UN and bilateral development agencies played a critical role in catalyzing support around these kinds of initiatives and NGOs contributed technical know-how and community development approaches. In this context we saw large scale engagement by employers in prevention and care efforts for employees, but also increasingly for their families and communities. Corporate engagement began to rapidly go beyond small scale corporate social responsibility initiatives; at the same time bilateral government agencies such as USAID started to develop mechanisms to encourage private sector involvement in favor of public health in the global south.
What has been so important to child survival and maternal health since this initial period of engagement is the expansion of these types of partnerships to encompass a much wider spectrum of public health engagement. This has included initiatives for many health priorities including malaria prevention and control, vaccination and now women’s cancers. Corporations, governments and civil society have very quickly understood that multi-sectoral partnerships, as complicated as they can be, offer a unique way to bring much-needed skill sets and resources to confront complex public health challenges. Formal partnerships have taken shape, catalyzed to work together by the knowledge that gain can be made both for social good as well as for individual partner priorities.
In some cases these partnerships have been multilateral in nature, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and its supporting regional organizations, the Friends of the Global Fight, that work to leverage public and private sector investment in support of the Global Fund’s goals. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) is another example of a major global partner that was created and has been sustained through multi-sectoral efforts and partnerships, bringing together pharmaceutical companies, major donors, civil society and governments and resulting in more than 4 million averted child deaths.
At the same time other models have been successful in mobilizing the private sector without the formation of stand-alone agencies; examples of this type of approach include the Voices for a Malaria Free Future, funded by the Gates Foundation and implemented by Johns Hopkins Center for Communications Programs and its partners, that has successfully mobilized major corporate support for malaria prevention and control across Africa. The Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon partnership has rolled out successful approaches to identifying and treating cervical and breast cancer in women in low and middle income countries.
The take-home message of the last 25 years of multi-sectoral partnerships is that they have helped propel us into impactful intervention models that are suitably multi-faceted to tackle complex public health challenges. This “big tent” approach is necessary in today’s world where new technologies and networks allow for an increasing number of contributors to public health challenges. Strategic partnership platforms and coordination will be increasingly important in ensuring that these alliances remain aligned and productive, and working toward a common social good, all while acknowledging individual partner priorities and added value.