Public-private partnerships for new innovations

Johnson & Johnson Vice President for Worldwide Corporate Contributions and Community Relations Sharon D’Agostino. Photo by: JNJ BTW website

Note from editor: This exclusive interview is produced and published by Devex Impact: a global initiative by Devex and USAID that focuses on the intersection of business and global development and connects companies, organizations and professionals to the practical information they need to make an impact.

As the Devex Impact feature story ”Could a new business model be the next wonder drug” explores, big pharmaceutical and health companies are finding that opportunities for growth increasingly exist outside of their traditional markets in developed countries. But there’s a significant trade-off: reaching these new markets requires a different and innovative business model that the medical and international development communities are still testing.

Partnership forms the core of this new business model. Particularly, leading health companies like Johnson & Johnson – which contributed $603.3 million to programs in more than 50 countries in 2010 – are building public-private partnerships to forge new innovations and integrate social responsibility programs.

Johnson & Johnson’s Sharon D’Agostino – vice president of worldwide corporate contributions and community relations – and Joy Marini – director of corporate contributions, responsible for international maternal and infant health programs – talk with Devex about how these partnerships are changing on the ground, and what challenges they are facing in the process.

What is the future for the public-partnerships that you are trying to create and for the path that big pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson are heading in?

Sharon D’Agostino: I can’t speak on behalf of the industry, but I can certainly say that from a Johnson & Johnson perspective we have a long legacy of working with community-based partners to address our strategic plan. Our mission and the work our team does is making long-term, life-changing improvements in human health, especially in areas where resources are scarce. And the work that we do covers three broad areas. The first is saving the lives of women and children. The second focus area is one that is very much dedicated to building the scale of those who serve community health needs… because in addition to nurses and doctors, in low resource settings, there are usually very few of either. So midwives and front-line workers are critical in ensuring that community health is improved. And the final area is preventing disease and reducing stigma. And we work through partners…large and small, who have expertise on the ground and we have a commitment to piloting innovative approaches and scaling up proven solutions with those partner organizations.

Do you see these relationships you have developed with partners transforming in any way, with programs you want to develop in the future?

Partnerships need to evolve, so one of the things that the private sector brings, and certainly we bring, is in addition to our funding, we bring the expertise of our people – so strategic planning and metrics and evaluation. So our relationships and partnerships change because we learn about what we are doing. And we have new partnerships that focus very much on innovation and those partnerships are probably changing the most dramatically. And the one that I would point to is MAMA, which is short for the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action and it is a partnership with USAID, the UN Foundation and with the mHealth Alliance… and the goal is to get essential health information into the hands of new and expectant moms in low resource settings. This is a great example where – the partnership is a year old – we are learning and changing as we go.

Do you think that continued focus on women and children’s health that we have seen this year during the opening of the U.N.’s General Assembly and surrounding events will continue in the next several years, looking beyond 2015, as new global health programs and initiatives are laid out?

Joy Marini: Yes. The global health world is very excited about the progress that we have made. And we have made great progress… and it shows that we know what works and we know how to implement it. But the needs are great and there is still a lot to be done and I think the focus will continue to be on women and children, including women and infant health. After 2015 I think a lot of people are wondering how we will continue and whether we will continue our global health work in other areas, but for now, I think the focus is going to remain, because we are very heartened by the progress.

What are the challenges that you see right now in terms of implementing this work on the ground?

Sharon D’Agostino: I think the biggest challenge is to create effective partnerships so they can include local input. Partnerships often start as a bit of an uneasy marriage, so everyone has to learn what the expertise and contribution will be of the partner and it is often very difficult to be sure that we have the right local input. That means everything from the ministry of health… as well as the people of the local village, because things have to be top down and bottom up to make them work effectively. It is not a matter of not knowing what works and it is not a matter of not being able to measure how people work. It is more about creating those partnerships that are going to help us implement this on the ground.

Do you think that could mean future opportunities for civil society partnerships, in particular, or what will that mean?

Sharon D’Agostino: I think it is ensuring all stakeholders are included and every voice is heard. I would say that is the greatest challenge. You could point to different health challenges, and there are many health challenges, but the truth of the matter is, we know what works. You can pick up The Lancet from two years ago. It is how to make it work on the ground in local communities.

Have you seen any sort of formal response to this problem from the global community, like, ‘We know what works, therefore we have to follow up in this coordinated response and make these specific changes’?

Joy Marini: Absolutely. The global health community is very sensitive to this. We have joined the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH). And this is bringing together multinationals and the private sector to talk about these issues and to address challenges together. We are participating in several different coalitions – on frontline health workers, on maternal and newborn health, where we are bringing together different stakeholders to say, ‘What do we have to offer and how can we work together?’ So there is no question that this is a huge focal point for the global health community and we want to make it work. We all want to make it right. It is definitely something we are getting better at and we are really trying harder to make work. Even among the private sector it is a challenge to have different private sector entities at the same table to figure out how they can move forward together, because everyone has their own objective.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.