University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

“Lifebuoy Swasthya Chetna”: Promoting Washing to the Villages of India

Business and Public Health Join to Encourage Hand Washing and Reduce Risk of Diarrhea

The World Bank worked with three international soap companies to create a public-hygiene campaign for the villages in remote areas.  The companies were Unilever (formerly Lever Brothers), Proctor & Gamble, and Colgate Palmolive.

In India, Hindustan Unilever in 2002 began its five-year Lifebuoy Swasthya Chetna (“Health Awakening”) campaign to promote hand washing with soap in the isolated in eight provinces of western India.  The campaign was promoted by the high death toll from diarrhea.

A 2002 World Health Organization report stated that two million children die of diarrheal diseases each year.  A study at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that simple hand washing with soap and water can reduce diarrhea by as much as 47%.

In the Swasthya Chetna campaign, health teams worked with school children and teachers to promote hand washing and bathing with soap.  In the four years ending in 2007, the campaign reached 80 million people in 27,000 villages.

Unilever also produced a small (18 gram), very inexpensive bar of soap which was large enough for washing the face and hands once each day for 10 weeks.

In some areas Hindustan Unilever was criticized because the campaign was seen as designed to increase soap sales.  Mostly, however, the campaign has been studied by governments and business schools as a highly successful example of combining business and public health.

This same combination was successful in the Progressive Movement in the United States from the late 19th century to the early 20th century that led to many health, hygiene, and sanitation reforms.

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