Unilever’s latest hand washing initiative – Will education really change behaviour?

Last week the Unilever brand Lifebuoy launched a campaign to promote hand washing with soap in order to reduce the number of children who die before they are five years old from infections such as diarrhoea.

The campaign has “adopted” the Indian village of Thesgora, which has one of the highest rates of diarrhoea infection in India and aims to “provide handwashing education to children and their families“.

This laudable aim is part of Unilever’s positioning as a responsible business – simultaneously generating social good and shareholder profit. Unilever’s CEO. Paul Polman, when launching the campaign said “Responsible businesses must take a more active leadership role and this new initiative is an example of how Unilever is assuming such a role through one of its iconic brands. Lifebuoy is living proof that putting a social mission at the heart of a brand can both deliver on the mission itself and deliver sustainable growth.”

Details of this particular behaviour change intervention aren’t immediately apparent. A Youtube film (which “tells the world the Lifebuoy story in a deeply emotional way[1]) has been made and people have been asked to follow the campaign on Facebook.  

Unilever has developed a model of Behaviour Change (The Five Levers for Change) which they claim has been used effectively for handwashing interventions elsewhere in Asia, but what concerns me about this initiative (and other statements from Unilever – see my piece on ethical purchasing behaviour) is the apparent underlying assumption that increased awareness and more education are the default solutions to behaviour change.

Evaluations of large scale hand washing campaigns in Vietnam and Senegal have revealed that people already knew the benefits of hand washing with soap. Baseline figures from Vietnam confirmed that 79% of caregivers targeted already knew the best way to wash hands is with soap and water[2]. In Senegal 98% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that washing hands with soap protects the health of your children[3].

Knowing about the benefits of changing your behaviour, or even intending to change your behaviour, does not always result in action, so it is not enough for interventions to simply focus on education – a wider, more creative, approach is needed.

This was recognised by the Senegal project mentioned above, it harnessed the influence of men to effect change within families, appealing to their role of provider, protector and role model. The project also started to close the “intention-action” gap by supporting families to plan how the hand washing will practically happen in their homes, and focussing on clearer behavioural objectives such as creating designated places for hand washing with soap within the home.

It is likely that awareness about hand washing with soap is already high in India given the amount of money and energy spent by NGOs, the government and companies to promote hand washing. In 2008, for example, a Global Handwashing Day campaign fronted by Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar reached an estimated 100 million schoolchildren.

Therefore, to be more effective, any behaviour change intervention in this area – including Unilever’s – needs to tackle other barriers to action besides lack of knowledge and awareness. A wider mix of methods, including practical support for change, needs to be deployed.

[1] Samir Singh, Global Brand VP, Lifebuoy.

[2] Handwashing behaviour change at scale: evidence from a randomized evaluation in Vietnam (Chase, Claire; Do, Quy-Toan – The World Bank, Sustainable Development Network, Water and Sanitation Program & Development Research Group Poverty and Inequality Team September 2012)

[3] Senegal: A Handwashing Behavior Change Journey, September 2010 (World Bank Water and Sanitation Program).

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