A patient in Vietnam is being examined for traichasis, a repeated trachoma infection that if left untreated can lead to blindness. Pfizer's International Trachoma Initiative operates across Africa and Asia.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is no stranger to social engagement and public-private partnerships. The New York-based health company engaged in public development work long before the term PPPs was coined, launching The Pfizer Foundation* in the 1950s.

Today, Pfizer’s global development work is broad reaching in region and scope, with its International Trachoma Initiative — aiming to eliminate trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness by 2020 — operating across Africa and Asia with the support of various partners, including the World Health Organization.

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Yet corporate investment in some of the world’s toughest health challenges extends beyond grants and donations, said Darren Back, senior director of social investments and corporate affairs at Pfizer.

Devex talked with Back about the evolving role of corporations in global development and obstacles to forging successful PPPs in a complex, global yet local world. Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for clarity.

Pfizer has indicated that the Sustainable Development Goals will influence your work. How do you actually envision the Global Goals guiding your activities and partnerships?

Organizations around the world are mobilizing around the new Global Goals to see where they can play the biggest part and have the biggest impact. Many of our partners are taking the same approach, from the perspective of how we can all collectively embrace and ultimately help achieve the goals. We see health as actually cutting across all of the goals. What we are doing at the moment is focusing on Goal 3, centered around good health, and Goal 17, which focuses on the importance of cross-industry partnerships. These pieces are implicit to everything we do at Pfizer, but we are thinking both creatively and traditionally about the types of collaborations we can have and how we can create these partnerships to help address the goals and support building a better world for all at all ages.

What kinds of new partnerships are you trying to further and develop?

Traditional partners need to think outside the box and consider which nontraditional partners they can work with to help advance the goals. It’s about how we can support and advance the goals; it’s about increasing our impact on society. That is strengthened as our company fulfills our purpose, thinking about who we need to partner with, how we can apply what [partners] can bring to the table, and what they are able to promote. I think announcing more partnerships is fundamental to our strategy. No one can do this alone.

Pfizer has been forging different alliances with nonprofits and other partners for several decades. Over the years, how have you seen the nature of PPPs evolve?

Everyone in the global development space now works much more collaboratively, versus working individually. In addition, business today is more globally oriented than it was before. The companies working in this space are held to really high standards. Those sorts of high standards are making sure everything we do is sustainable and is part of our business practice.

What is important for us and our partners is agility, and recognizing the people who truly know what the gaps are in terms of access to health care. Those people are the ones who have the knowledge; who oftentimes have innovative ideas. One of the ways Pfizer, through the Pfizer Foundation, supports those individuals is through one of the programs we have called Global Health Innovation grants, where the foundation works directly with social entrepreneurs on the ground. This helps determine exactly what is needed ... what has changed, and how we can be catalytic. We want to make sure we can best offer ourselves, our capabilities and resources.

What other ways do you think the nature of PPPs stands to evolve in the next few decades?

There is a recognition that it is not just about donations anymore. We need to think beyond the traditional idea of donations toward the idea that we have to come together with partnerships, utilizing that spirit of entrepreneurship so we can problem solve together as a global community. We will continue to move beyond the idea of rich countries giving to poor ones. We are a company of 97,000 people with multiple skills and resources beyond just offering donations and grants. It’s about thinking creatively, about how we can use partnerships to leverage the unique skills we have as a community. An example here is our approach to skills-based volunteering and pro-bono work with partners around the world.

What challenges are most apparent to you when it comes to developing new partnerships?

One of the biggest challenges we face is being agile enough within our partnerships to address issues at a community level. The world is changing so quickly that we need to change with it and respond as quickly as possible to some of the biggest problems that persist within the local health community.

As an organization we have to respond globally to problems ... but then you also have activities at a local level. Much of what we do is work with partners on the ground within countries. In Kenya, for example, we recognize that one of the barriers to accessing health care for many people is money and savings. Kenya is a great example of the wave of mobile money, and Pfizer, through the Pfizer Foundation, has been working with partners to create a mobile health wallet, where families can save money specific to health care. Here we identified a local challenge and need and said, “Let’s see how this works.”

Are there particular health or development problems Pfizer aims to prioritize in its work going forward?

There is no shortage of complex health challenges that need to be addressed. We need to think beyond just treating the disease, instead building partnerships holistically ... We are thinking about achieving long-term health solutions ... closing the gap by supporting entrepreneurship and supporting many people locally.

The Millennium Development Goals and dialogue surrounding them placed an emphasis on maternal health and maternal mortality, which did not meet its target reduction point by 2015. Pfizer has already worked a lot in the field of women’s health. Will you continue to prioritize this?

We have a history of engagement in family planning and used that expertise to develop partnerships that improve access to family planning services. Women and children’s health is central to Pfizer’s global health priorities and is one of our key strategies of the Pfizer Foundation. We have a number of key partnerships looking to address some of the barriers that people face locally with regards to accessing immunization and family planning; it remains something we are very focused on.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to at Devex World and what is the one trend or innovation that you’ll be discussing with global development community luminaries there?

I am looking forward to recognizing the importance of collaboration and being able to exchange ideas with other leaders in the development community. We want to see how they are mobilizing around the SDGs and what partnerships they have. The idea is to understand what others are doing and how they are also using their unique skills to address and respond to the SDGs.

As we move forward with the global goals, we all need to think about the way we leverage our skills and resources to be as catalytic as possible — and to make sure we are using our resources in the best possible way.

* The Pfizer Foundation is a charitable organization established by Pfizer Inc. It is a separate legal entity from Pfizer Inc. with distinct legal restrictions.

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About the author

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.