20 June 2012

Handwashing with soap can help us achieve the Millennium Development Goals

Myriam Sidibe, Global Social Mission Director, Unilever-Lifebuoy

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.

UNICEFs latest report [1] 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 [2] – 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 per cent and diarrhoea by 60 per cent – 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 [3] programme through to the Global Public Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap [4] – 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. [5]

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.


[1]UNICEF Report, Pneumonia and diarrhoea: Tackling the deadliest diseases for the world’s poorest children, June 2012, http://www.unicef.org/media/files/UNICEF_P_D_complete_0604.pdf

[2] For more information on the Millennium Development Goals see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/datablog/interactive/2012/jun/14/millennium-development-goal-progress-check

[3] http://www.who.int/gpsc/en/

[4] http://www.globalhandwashing.org/

[5] http://www.unilever.co.uk/sustainable-living/healthandhygiene/