Beating Global Health Crises... With Business

Entrepreneurs are delivering health services to needy families in novel ways.

ByJANE E. ALLEN, ABC News Medical Unit
September 23, 2010, 12:31 PM

Sept. 24, 2010— -- Bob McDonald, Gary Cohen and Chuck Slaughter spend much of their time in conference rooms, not operating rooms.

Like doctors, these U.S. business executives are dedicated to improving the health of women and children in the world's poorest countries. But unlike doctors, they wield the tools of modern business to aid some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

"Four thousand children die a day," because of bad water, said McDonald, the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, a company whose cleaning, beauty, grooming, health and hygiene brands are mainstays in American homes. For the last six years, P&G has contributed 2.4 billion liters of clean water through its Safe Drinking Water Program.

This week, at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York, McDonald announced that P&G would expand the program to provide 2 billion liters of clean water a year by 2020 to people in 20 countries of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. One packet of its PUR powder converts 10 liters of dirty, potentially disease-causing water into a day's supply of potable water for a family -- for 10 cents per packet, including delivery, he said.

"A dime a day to stay alive. Not a bad deal," said former President Bill Clinton.

Asked what motivated this effort, McDonald told Clinton: "The Procter & Gamble company has been around for 172 years, and over that time, our purpose has always been to touch and improve lives all over the world. We think it's good business as well as good philanthropy, and consumers around the world today want to know what they're buying into when they spend their dollars for products."

He said the company has worked hard to tie some of its brands to causes, such as linking purchases of Pampers to donations of vaccines to eradicate tetanus.

The State Department has been working closely with P&G to provide water purification to areas of Pakistan devastated by the recent catastrophic flooding, according to Richard C. Holbrooke, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He noted obstacles that must be overcome to assure that the packets get used to protect people from such devastating infectious diseases as dysentery.

One example:

Each packet of water purifier is meant for a 10-gallon jerry can, but when Holbrook visited a camp for displaced flood victims, he was told, "We can't use it, because we don't have 10-gallon jerry cans and if you put it into smaller containers, it smells of chlorine, so no one's using it."

Holbrooke said the solution was simple -- use part of the packet and save the rest -- but the State Department had to find ways to communicate that to illiterate Pakistanis who could not read instructions.

Sexual Violence Against Women: 'A Human Rights Issue, First and Foremost

"For me it is a mission," says Gary Cohen, executive vice president of Becton, Dickinson and Co. (BD), a medical technology company headquartered in Franklin Lakes, N.J. He said his overseas work has "no measurable commercial impact" on BD's business.

Nevertheless, he's helped create a partnership, "Together for Girls," now tackling sexual violence against girls in African countries. Participants include BD, the Nduna Foundation, the CDC Foundation, four United Nations agencies, the CDC, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Office of Global Women's Issues, and the Brazilian marketing firm Grupo ABC.

For the last decade, Cohen has been working in HIV/AIDS, for which BD pioneered diagnostic tests to count CD-4 immune cells destroyed by the disease. During trips to sub-Saharan Africa, he says he realized "the world will never treat our way out of this disease" and began focusing instead on underlying contributors to the spread of AIDS, including sexual violence against girls.

"I got to know the vulnerability of children," Cohen says. Using skills honed in the private sector -- "I know how to mobilize, how to get things done" -- and building on longstanding collaborations with international health agencies, he grabbed the reins of the project.

"If you want to relate it to a business area, it's strategic market development," he says. Cohen rattles off staggering statistics compiled from house-to-house surveys in Swaziland: 38 percent of women 20 to 24 are HIV-positive (compared with 11 percent of males). About 25 percent of girls 13 to 17 have experienced sexual violence, and 29 percent of them became pregnant as a result.

Cohen, the father of 15- and 20-year-old daughters, says the issue hits close: "Girls 15 and younger are five times more likely to die in childbirth" than women, he said.

"Together for Girls," begun in Swaziland, is now in Tanzania and will be in Kenya by year's end, Cohen said.

"There's a momentum building here," he said. "We've starting to reach that turning point on these issues. This is actionable. This can be changed."

Rural 'Avon Ladies' for Affordable Health Products Make a Living, and a Difference

"What we're doing here is shamelessly stealing the Avon model in service for the poor," says Chuck Slaughter of Sausalito, Calif., founder of LivingGoods. "We recruit, train and support networks of health entrepreneurs -- independent agents, just as you'd be under Avon, who go door-to-door, school-to-school, church-to-church... selling the cheapest, simplest, smartest solutions to the leading killers of young children."

The poor but literate Ugandan women who have become LivingGoods sellers are trained to dispense over-the-counter drugs and products that prevent key contributors to childhood mortality: malaria, diarrhea, poor nutrition.

"We're not just about health," he says. The company already has moved into energy solutions for the poor, such as high-efficiency cookstoves, and plans to expand into agriculture as well. The goal is to grow into an international business that can "pay for itself."

Slaughter says he's looking for "enlightened philanthropists" from the investment community who are interested in a very high social return on their philanthropic dollars, and also hopes to attract "big direct-selling business and packaged consumer goods businesses to see the potential of this."

In the end, he said, the success of this project will lie in its social impact: "We are building a sustainable pro-poor franchising operation."

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