Unilever’s approach to coordinating a coalition of public, private and NGO partners

SL Staff

Unilever drove hygiene improvements through forming and coordinating The Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC)

2021 World Sustainability Awards Shortlisted Initiative

This example was shortlisted for the External Partnership Award at the 2021 World Sustainability Awards after being reviewed, scored and discussed by a panel of 17 global Chief Sustainability Officers. The judging panel was impressed by the progress being made and felt this initiative was one that should be shared and celebrated.


During the outbreak of COVID-19, hygiene and social distancing emerged as two of the most affordable and effective ways to limit the spread of the virus. Handwashing with soap is recommended by the WHO as a key preventative measure against the spread of the virus, but with millions of people in low- and middle-income countries lacking safe handwashing and sanitation facilities radical action had to be taken to address these hygiene challenges and prevent a rise in COVID-related poverty.

It was a challenge well suited to consumer goods giant Unilever to contribute with its longstanding expertise in hygiene behaviour change, strong logistical capability, and global reach as one of the world’s biggest health and hygiene companies.

Together with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Unilever established The Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC) to mount a rapid response to limit the spread of the virus. The HBCC is novel in its combination of government funding with matched donations and management from a private sector partner, representing an up to £100m contribution to COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Unilever oversees the 78 projects operating across 37 countries with an aim to reach 1 billion people. Taking a leading role in such a novel and complex coalition requires careful management, a radical approach to partnerships and a commitment to fast delivery.


Setting up the coalition

Hygiene has always been a central part of Unilever and improving people’s lives through better hygiene is at the heart of the company. As the world’s largest manufacturer of soap Unilever had a strong foundation to address the shock of COVID-19 and was able to move quickly to address the crisis. In mid-March 2020 the company announced a set of measures to support global and national efforts to help tackle the spread of COVID-19. Within a matter of weeks, Unilever adapted production lines and partnered with several new factories to significantly scale up production of sanitiser to meet the drastically increased demand.

Unilever also has strong expertise in hygiene behaviour change and decades of experience working together with civil society organisations and government stakeholders to improve people’s hygiene behaviours. Through working together on the social enterprise partnership TRANSFORM, Unilever and FCDO had established a strong collaborative relationship. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, they were well placed to respond to the impacts of the pandemic in the communities where they work and launched a rapid response together.

FCDO has provided up to £50 million of grant funding matched by Unilever’s in-kind contribution to the coalition. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) was brought in as the academic partner to provide technical expertise to the coalition and ensure interventions were guided by evidence. Programmes are run on the ground by 21 NGO and UN organisations which were chosen for their ability to reach vulnerable populations rapidly and at scale. These include ActionAid, Aga Khan Foundation, AMREF, BBC Media Action, BRAC, Care, GIZ, IRC, IRC WASH, LSHTM, Oxfam, Plan, PSI, Save the Children, Sesame Workshop, SNV, UNHCR, UNICEF, WaterAid, World Vision and WSUP.

The consortium was created in two phases with the first projects kicking off within 30 days of the HBCC’s inception. Later on, specific gaps were identified and filled to ensure key geographies and vulnerable groups were reached.

A three-pronged approach

The HBCC set out a three-pronged approach to help communities stay safe from the virus:

  • Improve infrastructure by leveraging partnership at scale to build and restore handwashing facilities, safe water points and distribute products and services
  • Deliver hygiene and behaviour change messaging through mass media, digital and face-to-face communication, provide awareness-raising, education and training
  • Provide support to vulnerable groups such as health workers, refugees, people with disabilities, and migrant workers who are at great risk of taking the virus from urban to rural areas

Unilever plays a critical role across all three components, donating more than 75 million hygiene products, providing proven hygiene behaviour change materials and managing a global mass media campaign. This all forms part of Unilever’s £50 million in-kind contribution. Perhaps most critically however, Unilever plays a central role in coordinating activities, with work taking place at a range of different levels; locally, nationally and globally.

Coordinating the coalition’s activities

The HBCC consists of 78 projects in 37 countries run by 21 different NGO and UN partners, and it has been Unilever’s role to coordinate efforts to ensure coherence across the coalition. This has included providing direct support to partners, making Unilever’s hygiene behaviour change assets available to partners in different languages, managing the coalition and communicating externally about its impact and reach, creating linkages for collaboration at the local and national level through business communities and Unilever’s national offices, and enabling knowledge sharing to and between partners.

Examples of the projects delivered by Unilever’s implementation partners:

  • WaterAid have been using Unilever products as part of their response programming, including distributing soaps and sanitiser at handwashing stations, and supporting the Ministry of Health’s hygiene campaign in Zambia by distributed soap and hand sanitiser, and building hand washing stations in healthcare centres.
  • WaterAid also worked with experts to design and install inclusive handwashing facilities that are adapted to be used by people with different abilities and can be operated by pedals using hands, feet or knees. This also allows for hands-free operation of the stations to allow for less contact.
  • ActionAid in Kenya is taking a gendered approach and are working with women and girls to teach them about COVID prevention and training them to share hygiene awareness messaging in their communities, including awareness work to tackle stigma associated with COVID-19.
  • PSI in Kenya and Vietnam developed chatbots to deliver COVID-19 training to healthcare workers via WhatsApp as lockdown restricted face-to-face courses. Other partners such as Save the Children, BRAC and SNV have also used digital tools to adapt training and courses for children, teachers and sanitation workers.
  • Sesame Workshop adapted Unilever behaviour change material and made it accessible to children and their carers in short episodes using their well-known characters from Sesame Street.
  • UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, supported Esatis Lebon, a 25-year-old refugee from the Central African Republic, residing in the Democratic Republic of Congo to record a song to raise awareness of Covid 19. The song has reached over 75,000 people living in northern areas of the country.
  • World Vision worked with faith and community leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo to help break down barriers to support and dispel myths about the virus and encourage good hygiene behaviours.

Knowledge sharing

Together with experts at the COVID-19 Hygiene Hub and technical partners like Facebook and Vodafone, Unilever offered upskilling sessions to partners on different topics. The company also organises sharing sessions which bring together all partners to share learning and challenges from their projects so that other organisations can learn from their solutions. This also gave space for organisations to come together and find collaboration opportunities and synergies between their interventions where they were working together in the same countries or similar contexts.

Creating a hygiene campaign

Unilever created a hygiene behaviour change campaign for mass media to teach and reinforce key hygiene behaviours and principles. Prolonged lockdowns and mixed messaging raised a need for a unifying campaign that could be used by all partners to ensure consistent reinforcement of hygiene principles, and which could be delivered to a large number of people from a safe distance. Working with global creative agency Ogilvy and with input from partners on the ground Unilever produced a global campaign which drew inspiration from the UK’s Hands-Face-Space campaign. Referred to as the “password for taking back our world from the coronavirus”, the #HANDS-FACE-SPACE-SURFACE campaign was created in four versions for use across Africa, South Asia, South East Asia and the Middle East. It was further translated into local languages to suit local contexts. In some places the campaign was also adapted to match local government’s health campaigns, or to reach a specific audience such as children or people with disabilities. In total, the campaign has been translated into more than 30 languages and will be aired in over 18 countries across TV, radio, social media and through billboards, flyers and posters. Unilever’s global media partner, Mindshare, have been supporting partners with their media strategies to help partners maximise their reach



HBCC has been highly successful in its objectives;

  • Over 1.4 billion people have been reached through mass media awareness campaigns.
  • More than 75 million hygiene products have been donated by Unilever for direct distribution to vulnerable people.
  • Over 550,000 handwashing stations have been built or restored Over 140,000 individuals have been trained on COVID-19 prevention techniques.
  • 10,000+ healthcare facilities have been supported through training, provision of PPE and given necessary resources like water facilities.

Not only did HBCC see significant progress in the uptake of hygiene practices, but awareness work has also tackled stigma associated with COVID-19, helping to break down barriers to support and challenging myths which can lead to discrimination.

Next steps

To ensure the sustainability of HBCC interventions, implementing partners are working with local communities, institutions, and governments to establish ownership and maintenance of hygiene facilities and integration of campaigns and education materials into future programming.

The profile of the HBCC and speed of delivery has helped charities to showcase water, sanitation and hygiene needs, demonstrate solutions, and leverage support from other sources. The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities in access to hygiene products and infrastructure, and the importance of investing in hygiene for the resilience of businesses, communities and economies. As a coalition, the HBCC is advocating for increased funding and prioritisation of hygiene from government and global donors.

Unilever continues its commitments to water, sanitation and hygiene and is working through brands like Domestos and Lifebuoy to contribute to meeting SDG 6 and achieve clean water, hygiene and sanitation for all by 2030.

Advice for others

Top three advice from the Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition

  1. Build good relationships with other organisations and key players in the areas you want to work
  2. Have an agile approach to allow for adaptations in a changing context
  3. Be evidence-led

Table of Contents

Scroll to Top

Share you details and a member of the Sustainability Leaders team will be in contact to give you more information about our network