Audacity useful in reimagining role of partnerships

Female health workers provide the polio vaccine during a National Immunization Day in Kano, Nigeria. The creation of a public-private partnership has polio on the brink of eradication with fewer than 370 cases reported worldwide in 2014. Photo by: Diego Ibarra Sanchez

The term “public-private partnerships” has been bandied about so often in the past couple of decades that it may, perhaps, be losing its true impact. Although all three words are easily understandable, the combined term carries a blandness that doesn’t adequately capture the very human motivations at its core and the incredible potential of a public-private partnership to do good in the world.

In reality, for millions of people across the globe, properly designed and executed public-private partnerships are a life source, an entry to a better life. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is a sterling example of how public entities have successfully teamed with private organizations and individuals to change the world for the better.

Formed in 1988, the polio eradication initiative is a joint effort by Rotary International, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — like Rotary, a private institution — has joined the cause. Other key players are most of the world’s national governments and the pharmaceutical industry.

The partnership’s mission — as its name states — is the global eradication of poliomyelitis, a crippling viral disease that paralyzed about 350,000 children a year when the campaign began.

By any measure, that’s an audacious goal. After all, only one human disease — smallpox — has ever been vanquished. But if we are to reimagine the role of public-private partnerships in today’s world, we need even more audacity. We need to think big at the outset. Bigger than what might seem reasonable or even possible.

The polio eradication partnership exists today because Rotary club members didn’t let the conventional wisdom of the time — that eradicating polio was well-nigh impossible — stop them. They just set about doing it. This led to the creation of a public-private partnership that today has polio on the brink of eradication with fewer than 370 cases reported worldwide in 2014. In the case of the GPEI, the notion of a partnership essentially was “reimagined” in real time on an unprecedented scale and scope.

The success of the partnership didn’t happen without planning and cooperation between vastly different partners. Traditionally, the public sector has been viewed by some in the private sector as bloated, incapable of responding quickly and laden with layers of bureaucracy.

Similarly, the private sector has its own image problems. Corporations can be seen as self-serving, motivated only by the bottom line and indifferent to the needs of the broader human community. Private philanthropies and nongovernmental organizations can come across as naïve do-gooders. Fortunately, reality and necessity can alter such inaccurate perceptions.

The public and private health sectors have come to realize that despite preconceived notions, they can both be much more effective working together than working independently.

There are obvious advantages to working with public health entities — the ability to tap into vast networks already in place, decades of knowledge, resources and the sheer capacity of an agency the size a national health ministry. The private sector also offers distinct advantages —  less red tape, easier access to necessary products and resources, and the ability to staff up quickly and train personnel for an effort as massive as a global health campaign.

Individually, the public and private sectors have clear limitations; combined, public and private partnerships can be remarkably successful.

So what are some of the key lessons we have learned through this incredible endeavor?

Each partnering organization must adhere to a clearly defined role and set of responsibilities. Within the GPEI, Rotary’s primary function is to raise money — Rotary members worldwide have directly contributed more than $1.3 billion — and to advocate within both donor and polio-affected countries to generate the public and private resources needed to carry out the program.

Every objective and goal, from the tactical to the strategic, must be clearly defined and measurable. As stated, eradicating polio may have seemed unrealistic at the outset, but the progress is measurable. Meticulous record-keeping about the number of vaccinations given and the number of polio cases reported allows us to chart our progress and to quickly identify problems, such as sudden outbreaks, for immediate response.

No program is perfect, and complacency is a liability. To help foster accountability, it is important to have a regularly scheduled and impartial assessment of the program. For the past five years, an independent monitoring board has issued quarterly reports that are especially useful in identifying challenges and aspects of the program in need of improvement.

A partnership like the Global Polio Eradication Initiative demonstrates why it is so important to trust and embrace the unique benefits of the public and private assets brought together for a greater purpose as we improve the lives of fellow human beings worldwide.

As we reimagine the future of public-private partnerships and their potential impact, let’s apply the lessons learned and best practices developed through the fight to end polio.

Above all, reimagine the goals to be accomplished through partnerships. Are they audacious? Seemingly impossible? If so, you’re on the right track.

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About the author

  • John Hewko

    John Hewko is the general secretary of Rotary International and The Rotary Foundation. From 2004 to 2009, Hewko was vice president for operations and compact development for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency established in 2004 to deliver foreign assistance to the world’s poorest countries. At MCC, he was the principal U.S. negotiator for foreign assistance agreements to 26 countries in Africa, Asia, South America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union. As general secretary, Hewko leads a diverse staff of 800 at Rotary International’s world headquarters in Evanston, Illinois, USA, and seven international offices.