What makes a public-private partnership work? Leaders share lessons learned at Women Deliver 2013

With less than 1,000 days left to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and as we look ahead to the post-2015 agenda, the importance of public-private partnerships has become all the more critical. To accelerate progress in global health and development, government, industry and civil society must work together to achieve the maximum impact. So what does it take to have a successful partnership across industries, sectors and cultures?

Leaders from government, corporations and the nonprofit sector looked to answer this question at the Women Deliver 2013 conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during a plenary session on “The Challenges and Benefits of Partnership.” Moderated by Dr. Zeda Rosenberg, CEO of IPM, a public-private partnership developing sexual and reproductive health technologies for women, the panelists had a lively discussion that will help guide and inform existing and future multi-sector partnerships.

Klaus Brill, Bayer – Young Adolescents Project

Klaus Brill, Vice President of Corporate and Commercial Relations at Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, highlighted the “Young Adolescents Project” (YAP) – the product of a successful partnership between Bayer and DSW, an international development and advocacy organization. YAP has increased adolescent Ugandan’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) information and services, and improved their health as a result.

“We are convinced it is not possible to move things forward by yourself. We have to partner and work together,” said Mr. Brill. He identified four broad components necessary for any partnership to succeed:

  • Ownership of your goals
  • A clear commitment to achieving them
  • Mutual reliance and trust among the partners
  • Accountability and clarity on the partners’ roles

Mr. Brill emphasized how important it is to clearly define responsibilities and accountability from the outset, and engage in regular meetings where “willingness to compromise is very important.” He encouraged site visits to address challenges directly with those working on the ground. These visits also provide an opportunity to engage leadership in the project and show them the impact of the partnership first-hand at the community level. 

Beatrice Mutali, Merck – Implanon Access Initiative

Beatrice Mutali, Family Planning Director at Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD), shared her insights on the Implanon Access Initiative, a recent partnership between the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition (RHSC) and Merck/MSD that increased affordable access to Merck’s long-acting reversible contraceptive implant IMPLANON (etonogestel implant) to millions of women worldwide. Through the partnership, Merck made IMPLANON available at its lowest access price in sub-Saharan Africa and in all other low- and lower middle-income countries with high rates of maternal mortality.

“What really ensured our success were monthly progress meetings amongst the partners,” said Ms. Mutali, where the partners addressed challenges, resolved issues, celebrated successes, and ensured specific measures and monitoring strategies were in place to support the initiative.

She particularly emphasized the need for all players in the partnership to come to a clear understanding of how the collaboration is supposed to work and to communicate openly. “You need to be able to pick up the phone and discuss issues transparently,” she said.

Understanding of the donor-funded family planning market was also crucial. “For a partnership that is largely dependent on donor funding for its success, it is essential that clarity is provided on how donor funding works,” Ms. Mutali explained.

Sharon K. D’Agostino, Johnson & Johnson – Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action

Sharon K. D’Agostino, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship at Johnson & Johnson, offered lessons learned from the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) project — a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Johnson & Johnson that harnesses the power of mobile technology to deliver vital health information to new and expectant mothers in difficult to reach areas. With support from the United Nations Foundation, mHealth Alliance and BabyCenter LLC, the project uses voice messages and texts to reach mothers in developing countries with information to help them care for themselves during pregnancy, understand warning signs, connect with local health services and care for their babies.

“It’s important to have clearly defined outcomes and expectations,” Ms. D’Agostino said, “about both the project goals but also the conduct of the partnership itself.”

“We had a clear vision,” she said, “but we needed to define roles, responsibilities and governance” for it all to succeed.

Jan Beagle, UNAIDS – Global Plan for the Elimination of Mother-to-Child Transmission and Keeping Their Mothers Alive

Jan Beagle, Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS, shared her lessons learned from the Global Plan for the Elimination of Mother-to-Child Transmission by 2015 and Keeping Their Mothers Alive, spearheaded by UNAIDS and PEPFAR. The project brings together over 70 governments, private sector companies, civil society organizations, foundations, international and regional organizations, and the United Nations. It focuses on 22 countries that make up 90 percent of the HIV burden. The partnership has already seen a 27 percent decline in new HIV infections in targeted women and doubled the number of women receiving prevention-of-mother-to-child treatment (PMTCT).

For Ms. Beagle, it was vital that all the partners believed in a vision of an AIDS-free generation.

She emphasized that the best ways to encourage buy-in and engagement was to communicate the “clear return on investment” the project would bring. “It costs $300 once for PMTCT and three times that for ART for life, and all that goes along with an unhealthy mother and child,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is flexibility, Ms. Beagle said. “Each country concerned has their own structure and sense of what’s needed to reach their main targets,” she said. Being able to share best practices among all the countries is extremely useful.

Dr. Rosenberg summarized the panelists’ insights, including perspectives from IPM’s experience partnering with pharmaceutical companies, the public sector and civil society. “You need institutional support, but even with that support, it’s all built on individual relationships,” she said.  “How you talk to one another and how you build trust and transparency is how you make it work.”