Private sector engagement in improving Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in developing countries

Posted by Maria Codina on November 24, 2017 at 3:34 pm

Involvement of the private sector in the commitments of civil society and public sector organizations has become a major focus in development programs. The sense of urgency to do so has been enhanced by reduced public funds for both development cooperation and the procurement of commodities, such as medicines or agricultural equipment. This has led to a greater reliance on the market for service provision, both in developed and developing countries (Capoor, 2005). For reaching the recently developed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is considered important that stakeholders from different sectors, including government authorities, businesses, civil society and non-governmental organizations, and research institutions cooperate ( Such multisector partnerships bring together resources and skills that can help all partners to bring forward their missions, while also reducing risks for individual organizations (Urlings, Rook, Coppens, & Iver, 2015).

The ‘market’ is changing for the private sector. Until recently, “value was created by companies that had the power to invent, mass-produce, and deliver” (Brand & Rocchi, 2011). This situation is changing rapidly, now that the internet has enabled people to create and share content on an unprecedented scale, including opinions about products and the companies that produce them. Companies are required to listen to their consumers, rather than broadcast their own brand messages. Another development is that a higher level of stakeholder accountability is demanded. Social and environmental challenges are mounting, but these can also be construed as market opportunities. Moreover, the size and complexity of the problems in developing countries makes it evident that not one stakeholder can resolve them. Cross-sector collaboration is called for. Large corporations are increasingly involved in social causes (Brand & Rocchi, 2011). They do so for reputational benefit, competitive advantages such as opening new markets, and philanthropic health impact (Droppert & Bennett, 2015).

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs works with the private sector and encourages civil society organizations to do so as well. Private sector engagement is considered important for implementing Dutch development policy. The Ministry can contribute to such collaborations with funding, but also with sharing expertise, information, and contacts. Ministry funds for projects in which the private sector is involved are managed by the Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland (Netherlands Enterprise Agency, RVO), which comes under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation. Furthermore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supports the Partnerships Resource Centre at Erasmus University, where expertise on partnerships is concentrated ( development-cooperation/contents/development-cooperation-partners-and-partnerships/public-private-partnerships).

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) is one of the four prioritized themes of Dutch development cooperation policy. The public sector, especially in the Netherlands, propagates a rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health. A rights-based approach entails at least three characteristics: 1) the indivisibility of civil and political rights, and socio-economic rights; 2) active agency by those who are vulnerable to human rights violations; and 3) the powerful normative role of human rights in establishing accountability for protections and freedoms (London, 2013). The SRHR approach was firmly established in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. However, SRHR was originally left out of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Nevertheless, civil society and other advocates have ceaselessly stressed the importance of SRHR for development and wellbeing (Haslegrave, 2013).

So far, private sector engagement was primarily seen as bringing ‘private sector efficiency’ and focus to a world dominated by cumbersome public sector institutions (Chataway, Brusoni, Cacciatori, Hanlin, & Orsenigo, 2007; Roehrich, Lewis, & George, 2014). However, cooperation with the private sector is not without risk. The public and private sector have a different outlook on the world. Both public and private sector may be committed to improving the lives of people, but their missions do not necessarily converge. Characterized in short terms, the private sector is profit-oriented, while the public and civil society sectors are value-oriented. Of course, this distinction does not do justice to the variety within these sectors, and to the subtleties of the way they interact with each other and target populations. As a matter of fact, a trend has been observed that NGOs move toward more commercial models, such as social enterprises, while corporations are increasingly focusing on social objectives.

Some have warned that increased reliance on private investments may weaken a rights approach (McGovern, 2013). However, commercial interests do not necessarily conflict with human rights. The right to enjoy sexuality freely, for example, is substantially enhanced when women and men have access to contraceptives to protect themselves (and each other) from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Even if sexual and reproductive rights are not the primary focus of companies, they may be able to contribute to their advancement. However, vigilance is needed, because the interests of partners (both government and business) can diverge from NGOs’ commitment to sensitive issues, such as abortion and sexual diversity, leading to risk-avoidance in the themes and activities of multisector collaborations in this field (McGovern, 2013).

Share-Net International and its partners have decided to make public-private cooperation one of their eight priorities. Even though cooperation between the public and private sectors is an important part of Dutch development policy, little is known about what is already being done and lessons learnt from joint programs. Therefore, this study sets out to draw up an inventory of existing initiatives in the field of SRHR. A literature review is conducted, supplemented with experiences of members and partners of Share-Net. The focus of this study is not on results and outcomes of partnerships, but on how the development of partnerships is experienced.

The other priorities are Sexual Diversity, Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy, Comprehensive Sexuality Education, Youth Friendly Health Services, Gender Based Violence, Integration of HIV and SRHR, and Contraception and Abortion.


You can find the pdf version here.