Looking at Davos: An Interview Between +SocialGood’s Shariha Khalid and Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet from Merck for Mothers

Global leaders gathered to discuss the future at the World Economic Forum in Davos. +SocialGood Connector Shariha Khalid reported from the event to discuss the leading themes, solutions, and how we can shape the conversation. In this interview, Shariha speaks to Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet of Merck for Mothers, an organization implementing programs, partnerships and solutions so no woman dies giving life.

Meet Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet:

Dr. Etiebet is a physician, researcher and strong advocate for women’s health, with extensive experience working with international development partners to design, manage and evaluate programs that address the needs of vulnerable and at risk populations. As the Executive Director of Merck for Mothers, Dr. Etiebet is responsible for successfully implementing a robust set of innovative programs across the globe, designing new high-impact partnerships and managing relationships with important external stakeholders to improve the health of women during pregnancy and childbirth.

*Note: Interview edited lightly for clarity

Shariha Khalid: Mary-Ann, can you explain about the Merck for Mothers program, and what you hope to achieve, in a couple of sentences?

Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet: Sure. Merck for Mothers is Merck’s $500 million, 10-year commitment to end preventable world deaths from pregnancy and childbirth worldwide. We do this in a number of ways: We work with partners in over 30 countries on 100 different projects to invest in things that empower women, invest in things that provide higher quality care, and invest in health system strengthening. Those three things we do to increase access to quality of maternity care and to increase access to family planning because we know if we address the unmet burden for modern contraception, we can reduce the maternal mortality by up to 30%. So that’s us in a nutshell.

But I think our approach coming from the private sector has been to focus on local, private providers that have been traditionally ignored in the development space but up to 40% — 45% of women are receiving care there. It’s also to think about how we can bring private-sector approaches around innovation whether they be in technologies, in products, in digital platforms, and processes to the healthcare delivery space. Then last but not least, how can we bring innovation and financing so we can crowd in more private-sector supporters.

We’re here at Davos this year to highlight two of our innovative financing partnerships, one with the World Bank’s Global Financing Facility where we have invested in a trust fund. We’re partnering with them to figure out not only how to bring more private-sector investments into the trust fund but at the country level how do we engage the local private providers around innovation and how do we make sure local private healthcare providers are included in the solutions.

Then the second innovative financing project that we are doing right now is a partnerships with UBS Foundation, USAID, Palladium, PSI, and HLFPPT, which is around a development impact bond. It’s called an Utkrisht development impact bond. The plan for that is to again improve quality of care among local private facilities in Rajasthan. Doing that, we estimate that we will save at least 10,000 lives over five years.

Shariha: I know that there’s a lot of interest from the private-sector to look at more innovative ways of engaging in corporate philanthropy but also as the same time limiting the risk of any philanthropic gifts that they make. If you’re on the side of the actual innovators, how might you get engaged in these sorts of projects and initiatives?

Mary-Ann: So I think it depends what type of innovator you are. So I think whether it’s in the financing space, bringing capital to bear, whether it’s in the delivery space and how we bring in new technology tools, how do we think about new ways of organizing health system delivery. So in terms of innovation, we think about it on at least two levels. So innovation around financing, innovation around service delivery, and innovation around tools. So that’s actually three ways. I think it’s a very good question because often it’s hard to find people who are doing that work.

As a funder, I think what we’ve seen is that many people are doing similar things and they’re actually not leveraging their learnings. They’re not leveraging their technologies. Many of these things are competing. So I think as a funder, we play a critical role in bringing together innovators and see how they can actually work together and leverage each other’s core competencies and strengths, because I think that’s the only way we’re going to get to scale.

Shariha: Can we talk a bit about the partnerships you just mentioned earlier on with the World Bank, the Gates Foundation, and then the development impact bond with USAID and UBS, all those other partners? How were all these partners brought together?

You’re talking about partnerships here where there’s money committed with an expectation of outcome as well and an end goal of adoption by a local government or someone who cares about those outcomes to make it sustainable. So please help us better understand how we can make better partnerships happen.

Mary-Ann: Great question. I think this also relates to the point I made about bringing innovators together. I think one of the most important rules Merck for Mothers can play is convening and facilitating and bringing people with like minds, like interests together. The genesis of the DIB, which as you mentioned has many partners who you may not traditionally think as working together … I think one common element is that we were all doing work in Rajasthan and we were all doing work around maternal/child health issues.

We realized that there was an opportunity again to pool all of our different strengths into something that could be scaled. From our perspective, we had worked on a quality of care accreditation program. We wanted to scale that. Who could we partner with? I think for some of the other partners who were looking for different ways to make sure that their financing streams were sustainable, also looking for some kind of sustainable financing for some of the income funders. How would their money have more impact?

So we all came to it with different needs but by pooling all of those needs we were able to create the development impact bond and bring our core strengths and complementary strengths to the partnerships. I think what made it work was, one, we were all committed to the end goal of saving lives and, two, we trusted each other and that allowed us to work through all the hurdles and all the challenges.

Shariha: So that particular project is, of course, delivering on a few of the SDGs, in particular SDG 3: health and well being. Where do you see the potential for this with financing the achievement of the other SDGs? What else could be done in the space? What has the most potential and also what is the most in need?

Mary-Ann: So I love that question because maternal mortality is multi-factoral. So one solution will not solve it. Actually the solution does not exist only in the health sector. We know that poor nutrition, lack of education, lack of infrastructure all drives maternal mortality. So the DIB is actually is a great tool to bring in investments in those other sectors, which are going to actually help reduce maternal mortality.

For us, I think the next thing to think about is scale. Again not just scale in the health sector but bringing in other sectors so that there’s a multi-sectoral response to the issue. Why I think that this is a very exciting thing to think about is because of another partnership we had with USAID, Saving Mothers, Giving Life in Africa, is that comprehensive total system approach that has made the difference around population level impact. So if we can use the DIB to crowd in investments from different sectors, private investment that are interested in different sectors, create a multi-sectoral intervention package, I think that’s when you’ll actually see the leapfrogging of impact.

Shariha: So any final words to share about innovative finance?

Mary-Ann: I think that we have to actually breakdown the words innovative finance. I think sometimes it can be used as a catch-all. I don’t think that it serves the community or the folks who are actually structuring these financing mechanisms because they all have their specificities. It’s not one size fits all. It’s not one solution for every problem. I think the more we have more experience with different tools I think the better we’re going to be able to understand what works best for what and have that impact.