I sense the question on everyone’s mind when I introduce myself at a WASH event: “Merck is a global health care company. So, why is she here?”
The explanation is quite simple: Merck’s mission is to help the world be well. Clean water is at the foundation of this promise.
Merck’s entrance into the WASH arena is relatively recent, and occurred in parallel with the expansion of our business into emerging markets such as India, Brazil, China, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. As Merck began to ask local ministers of health in these countries how we could help them address their greatest health challenges, the issue that came up often was lack of access to clean water and its huge toll on the health of their people.
Until the most basic health needs — access to food, water, sanitation, and hygiene — are addressed, large segments of populations in emerging markets cannot benefit from our products, including life-saving vaccines. For Merck to be a true partner and commit to helping our customers address their most formidable challenges, we realized WASH must be part of the overall strategy.
Starting in 2010, we spent about a year determining how to “dip our toe” into the WASH field. While we have a long history in public-private health partnerships, none have been specific to clean water. Luckily, we found that many of our existing partners, including CARE, the World Bank, PSI, UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are also involved in WASH. We engaged them in conversations about their work, joined groups such as Global Water Challenge, and made connections with companies such as Coke, Dow, Pepsi, and P&G who are already doing good work in this field. We also talked to shareholders such as the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and became a signatory to the UN’s CEO Water Mandate.
These conversations confirmed for us the critical importance of addressing WASH (we were on the right path!), but also that we could not do it on our own. We needed to team up with the right partners. Many people we spoke with suggested starting with one geographic focus — rather than pilots in several countries, as we had initially been considering — and then expanding from there. Keeping their input in mind, we identified our initial focus area of southern and central India — both important markets for our business and both severely affected regions by WASH issues.
Our conversations also made us think hard about the kind of investment we wanted to make and the kind of impact we wanted to have. By that, I mean did we want to simply invest our money in bricks and mortar for hundreds of new water stations, which would basically require writing a check? Or did we want to invest in research-based projects that sought to determine the most effective ways to address the WASH challenge and thus create sustainable long-term approaches? What appealed to us about this latter approach is that we could apply the skills of our employees to help develop health impact studies, behavior change communications, and public advocacy outreach strategies.
Out of this we developed our WASH strategy for India, which mirrors our core mission: to help the Indian population be well. Wherever we operate, the key to achieving this mission is a strong understanding of the health needs of our customers. Our strategy in India includes our products that address water-related diseases and our work with partners to change behaviors related to sanitation and hygiene.
On World Water Day 2012, we announced a three-year partnership with the Safe Water Network (SWN). What we like about SWN is that they work through their projects to gain a better understanding of the environmental, socioeconomic, behavioral, and market challenges that prevent access to clean water. They pilot various approaches and models, and then take the learnings to identify sustainable models that can be scaled on a wide-spread basis. Our work with them will focus on Andhra Pradesh in southern India, where we will work to increase awareness of the importance of clean water and hygiene to drive behavior change. We plan to share key findings with the WASH sector and policy makers to help lead to more wide-scale change. Later this year, we will also be lending four or five Merck employees (“Fellows”) to SWN for three to six months to work on a variety of projects, including a health outcomes assessment study, behavior change and quality assurance. These employees will benefit by gaining valuable insights about behaviors in these markets.
We also decided to partner with UNHABITAT, Coca-Cola, and NDTV on a partnership called “Support My School” (SMS), which is working with local NGO partners to install water filtration systems, improved sanitation facilities, libraries, and new sports equipment to schools across India. In deciding to join, we felt that there is no place more important to start than with children. Not only do we want to improve the health of India’s youngest citizens, but we want to ensure they are able to stay in school and get the education they need to lead India in the years to come. Children are also important messengers as they deliver WASH messages back to their families. In visiting schools outside Bhopal earlier this year, the impact was clear: the children were eager to show us their new latrines, and teachers indicated that attendance was up (some students were riding their bikes five miles to school). Students from near-by private schools had even switched to the SMS schools due to the better bathroom facilities.
Our goals in both partnerships are to increase the number of people with access to clean water and increase awareness about sanitation and proper hygiene. In doing so, we expect to see decreased mortality and illness due to water-related disease, increased school attendance — particularly among adolescent girls, and increased economic productivity in those areas where we are focused — these will be the measurements we examine and build into our public reporting.
While it’s still early days for us, we’ve already learned a great deal. There are so many great partners out there and projects worthy of investment. But it’s vital that we focus on what we want our impact to be and what we want to get out of this work as a business. This will not only lead to positive outcomes for the communities in which we invest, but also to the sustainability of Merck’s involvement in this important space.