Multilateralism through Public-Private partnerships are Key to Flattening the COVID-19 Curve

By Paul Polman, Siddharth Chatterjee and Myriam Sidibe

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that now is “a defining moment for modern society.  History will judge the efficacy of the response not by the actions of any single set of government actors taken in isolation, but by the degree to which the response is coordinated globally across all sectors for the benefit of our human family.”

Governments, the private sector, and development institutions need to come together in innovative ways not just to flatten the curve of infection and mitigate the economic disruption, but also to prepare for the new normal of the post-Covid world in Africa and the rest of the world.  Greater partnership between the public and private sectors is going to be critical. The fight to flatten the coronavirus curve is an acid test for stakeholder capitalism and especially for multilateralism.



Kenyan nurses wear protective gear during a demonstration of preparations for any potential coronavirus cases at the Mbagathi Hospital, isolation centre for the disease, in Nairobi. Photo Quartz Africa March 2020

As Covid-19 continues to spread sickness and death, Africa has so far escaped the worst effects.  The continent’s lagging health care infrastructure, however, makes it highly vulnerable if the virus reaches the high-velocity community transmission we have seen in Italy, Spain and New York.  Not only are health systems delicate, but crucial medical supplies are far from sufficient, and social protections as a whole are weak.

With the health crisis also becoming an economic and soon a social crisis, the continent is under siege.  Many companies are struggling through the economic slowdown, with tourism and smaller enterprises the most challenged.  With bankruptcy and job losses looming, many families are already reducing spending and consumption.  In the absence of significant fiscal stimulus – which few African countries can afford anyway – some projections are cutting the continent’s GDP growth in 2020 by as much as eight percentage points.

L to R: The co-authors Myriam Sidibe, Siddharth Chatterjee, Paul Polman join the First Lady of Kenya, Ms Margaret Kenyatta, in Nairobi, Kenya at an event. Photo UNFPA Kenya, 24 Jun 2016

No one knows for sure what is ahead, with scenarios changing daily as new information comes through.  Many firms are focused on business continuity, employee safety and simply survival and lack the luxury of assisting external stakeholders.  But it’s time for an all-hands-on-deck response, both to flatten the curve of infections and keep businesses resilient, and to be ready to restart as physical distancing ends.  More than ever before, the private sector needs to deploy its full capabilities to innovate and bring positive, sustainable change – to help secure strong markets in the future.

There are several areas where private sector support is essential.  Current priorities include unified communication platforms to enable populations to practice the needed preventative behaviours (washing hands, wearing masks, and practicing physical distancing), as well as managing stocks of essential materials, test kits, ventilators and oxygen and PPE. Support would also include protecting the most vulnerable people from the economic effects of the pandemic, especially where curfews are enforced.

This is also a unique opportunity to challenge sceptics, in both the not-for-profits and for-profit sectors, with a new blueprint of collaboration.  The World Health Organisation has issued guidelines on engaging the private sector as part of a whole-of-society response to the pandemic and has signed an iconic partnership with the International Chamber of Commerce.  The African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have also launched a public-private partnership known as the Africa Covid-19 Response Fund, which raises resources to prevent transmission and support sustainable medical responses.

            In Kenya the national government has led the charge in fighting Covid-19 by rapidly scaling up a large array of public health interventions and putting into force social interaction rules.  To complement the government’s preparedness and response efforts for the next six months, the United Nations, together with humanitarian Non-Governmental Organisations launched a flash appeal seeking over US$267 million to respond to the critical needs of 10 million of the country’s most vulnerable people. 

So far the pandemic has not been the finest hour for international cooperation.  But the role of the UN and the private sector has never been more critical as an enabler of multisectoral partnerships for deliveries, and also to keep the focus on the most vulnerable that these partnerships need to reach.  

In Kenya, and under the leadership of the Government, the UN has built a model to catalyse public private action: the SDG Partnership Platform. It is a tested instrument for engagement that has brought together a variety of private players in previous initiatives to co-create and rapidly deploy with government large-scale shared-value solutions to address the challenges our societies and planet are facing.  It is through such a mechanism, for example, that the UN mobilized the private sector to carry out a maternal mortality reduction campaign in Kenya’s north-eastern counties, one that was recognised as a global best practice.

Kenya’s National Business Compact on Coronavirus, a gathering of companies aimed at accelerating local action and supporting governmental efforts against the pandemic, got successfully off the ground with the help of the UN SDG Partnership Platform, and champions from private sector and civil society.  

The Kenyan model of cooperation could take shape all over Africa.  Such models allow governments to foster an ecosystem of purposeful partnerships; to amplify private-sector philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and policy advocacy for national mitigation; and to accelerate shared-value partnerships.  It also allows the UN to play its role as a neutral broker, and steer a much-needed balance between lethargic action on one hand and misdirected reactions on the other. 

This may well be the blueprint needed to fight the next global pandemic, whose speed and fury could surpass what we are witnessing now.

Paul Polman is co-founder of IMAGINE, Chair of the International Chambers of Commerce and former CEO of Unilever

Siddharth Chatterjee is the UN Resident Coordinator of Kenya

Myriam Sidibe is a Senior Fellow at Mossavar Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School

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