Many people have said that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse progress made towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In the article “SDG17: The Partnership of Governments and Private Companies to Combat COVID-19”, Dr. Azmizam Abdul Rashid, Deputy CEO of Urbanice Malaysia explains that we have an opportunity to learn from the pandemic, to reflect on how we can deal with the current crisis and focus on resilience to ensure we are better prepared in the future.
The article was written in early 2020. There has been much adaptation and new partnerships since then that reinforces the power of working together.
As Dr. Abdul Rashid puts it, partnerships between multilateral organizations, the private sector, national governments, and philanthropies were essential to slow the pace of the outbreak, help countries protect their most vulnerable citizens, and accelerate the development of tools that can bring the epidemic under control.
Dr. Rashid explains that in recent years, corporate social responsibility has become more about feel-good guises companies pull to cover up shortcomings in other areas instead of actually working towards social change. We need to see the private sector meaningfully commit to change that moves the needle on important issues. Dr. Abdul Rashid argues that to make that change, companies need to take four key actions:
- Empower employees: moving from ineffective volunteer activities to developing ideas to solve social problems based on personal experience and professional skills. This means moving quickly to establish a virtual taskforce so employees can discuss their experiences of working remotely and together develop new and more effective approaches.
- Engage experts: seeking outside knowledge when there is a lack of internal expertise to determine how to allocate resources best to make change effectively and responsibly.
- Encourage innovation: developing a better, faster, and more cost-effective approach to solving a problem. Here, diversity is essential, particularly in age, culture, and gender, to develop and implement new ideas.
- Entrench commitment: not shying away from responsibility to employees, business partners, community stakeholders, and charitable organizations. it is essential to be there when times are tough because there’s nothing harder than rebuilding trust.
Corporations can then help eradicate the transmission of the virus and establish a more effective framework to inspire social change in the future.
Examples of companies responding to the COVID-19 pandemic:
Dr. Abdul Rashid presents a variety of examples of companies responding to the coronavirus crisis. A range of more strategic-style partnerships is included and many philanthropic-style partnerships. While useful, especially when there is a lack of goods, I believe that in emergencies like COVID-19, we need to move beyond charitable donations of supplies such as masks and ventilators. What good is the donation of a product when the rest of the system is left to fend for itself?
One of the main strengths of the private sector is that it can provide technological solutions to collect and utilize data for virtual medicine. Here, strategic partnerships are beneficial to create shared objectives and share resources to make a significant positive impact.
Dr. Abdul Rashid does provide some examples of strategic partnerships, the kind of partnerships Impact17 is always looking for. For example, early in the pandemic, Nestlé entered a strategic partnership with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The company will utilize available logistic capacities to support the needs of IFRC in countries around the world to help emergency services, and caregivers, and strengthen health systems. Similarly, the example of WhatsApp is also given.
One of the initiatives launched by WhatsApp supporting the global fight against the pandemic is the WhatsApp Coronavirus Information Hub in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). This information hub guides health workers, educators, community leaders, nonprofits, local governments, and local businesses relying on WhatsApp to communicate by reducing the spread of misinformation and connecting users with accurate health information. This type of partnership helps get accurate real-time information to local health officials and billions of users around the globe.
How can we take the lessons learned from COVID-19 into the future?
As the article was written at the start of the outbreak in 2020, some significant events are not included. Perhaps the most significant event was the successful development of various vaccines, such as those by Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, that significantly protect against severe illness and death. Other important events include the various examples of governments contracting companies to manufacture and distribute masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). In these cases, either the items have been faulty and unusable or sitting in distribution centres, unable to get to hospitals and the public. COVID-19 has been a sort of case study to test out what does and does not work in crises. But what happens when the pandemic subsides in countries with the infrastructure to deal with this? Will companies who source much of their raw material from the Global South take on partnerships with key stakeholders as fervently as they have in Asia? I think the answer has been an overwhelming ‘no.’
Roughly a year into the pandemic, when the first doses of vaccines became available, countries in the global North reserved doses for their citizens.
Perhaps Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now best described, “the rich world’s stance is not simply ‘me first,’ but ‘me first, second, third, and fourth.’”
Despite this anger, vaccine manufacturing countries in the global South, such as India, South Africa, and Brazil, suggested manufacturing the vaccines locally. However, companies such as Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna have not pursued this. So, in addition to the key actions Dr. Abdul Rashid proposed, I suggest that governments need to be better prepared by collaborating with the private sector to build the groundwork for effective prepositioned partnerships in times of crisis, including taking account of shared and differing values and motivations. This should be the role of civil protection planning branches of governments tasked with preventing, preparing, and responding to disasters by providing protective infrastructure and resources in times of crisis. Some examples include the Swiss Government’s Civil Protection Organisation (CPO), the European Commission’s EU Civil Protection Mechanism, and the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO).
Progress towards the SDGs has developed a basis for acceleration in the coming years. Speeding up efforts means the Asia region can balance its fast-growing economy with prosperity for people and the planet. Bringing life back into partnerships at all levels and across all stakeholders will enable their implementation. Decisive action in the region is needed to have a strong finish by 2030. Government and corporations mustn’t lose sight of the future despite the unprecedented health emergency.
These lessons provide a glimmer of hope for what can be accomplished when governments, businesses, civil society, and citizens partner and work together.
Emily is driven and dedicated to supporting communities impacted by infectious diseases. She believes that the only way to truly support communities is to break down the humanitarian and development siloes and create multisector partnerships, for a people-centered response.
Emily holds a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Global Public Health from Leiden University and a Master of Science (MSc) in Control of Infectious Diseases from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She also has experience in researching WASH and health partnerships and of integrating WASH and mental health support in emergencies.
Emily is researching health partnerships in humanitarian crises, looking at the nexus between SDGs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10.