Ford Motor Co. is the latest company to experiment with technology and collaboration with NGOs to deliver health care in underserved rural areas of India. Although the Indian government has done a respectable job expanding health care to India’s rural poor, much work needs to be done and NGOs along with business are starting to fill the gaps. For many of India’s rural poor, the biggest challenge they face is logistics. A trip to the closest rural hospital means a day of lost wages, not to mention the cost and hassle of finding transportation. One solution involving close work between NGOs and companies is changing the paradigm of delivering health care: instead of the poor visiting doctors, mobile health clinics in retrofitted ambulances or vans instead bring health care services to those who most desperately need it.
Ford recently wrapped up a pilot project that explored rural health care access as a means to expand its corporate social responsibility (CSR) in India. The SUMURR (Sustainable Urban Mobility with Uncompromised Rural Reach) program involved a retrofitted Ford Explorer SUV in which medical professionals could visit pregnant women and children in villages impenetrable by other forms of transportation.
“You have to believe in public-private partnerships . . . you can’t just write a check and step back.” – Deeptie Sethi of Ford India, in an interview in New Delhi on February 27.
According to David Berdish, Ford’s Manager of Social Sustainability, the SUMURR project is a way for the company to work with local community groups by leveraging its products and technology instead of engaging in “checkbook philanthropy.” The nine-month SUMURR project linked Ford to several partners, including American and Indian universities, the NGO Hand in Hand India and the U.S. Department of State as part of former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s agenda to make women’s health care a focus of American foreign policy.
As the above video shows, India’s progress on health technology still does not reach many who live in isolated areas. To that end, SUMURR centered in the Kalvarayan Hills region of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Isolated because of the rugged terrain, villages in this area are unreachable by the two- and four-wheeled vehicles that typically transport people within and between villages and larger towns. Infant and maternity mortality rates in the Kalvarayan Hills are higher than in the rest of the state, in large part because of the lack of adequate transportation. Hence the Explorer, equipped with medical and technological equipment, helped deliver health care services and education.
In addition to medical check-ups, vaccinations and the transportation of women to regional hospitals so they could safely give birth, SUMURR allowed for visits to 54 rural villages. Hand in Hand India’s staff had the opportunity to launch awareness projects on a bevy of maternal and children’s health challenges. Ford estimates that at least 1,600 women and children received screenings for illnesses and immunizations; 3,100 additional people benefited from health education programs; and 41 pregnant women at high risk were able to give birth to their children in a safe hospital environment.
Technology is a big factor behind SUMURR’s impact. Many of the remote villages lacked reliable mobile telephone service, so researchers at Ford and its partners are still fine-tuning the open-source platform OpenXC to allow the hosting of a local computing “cloud” within SUMURR’s vehicle. Village nurses and ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists, local women who provide front-line health care services in much of India) can then submit critical health information about patients and then transmit them to remote data centers when connectivity is possible at a later time.
“What can we do to go beyond compliance and help make people’s lives better and give them access to health, water and education?” – David Berdish, Manager of Social Sustainability, Ford Motor Co., in an interview by phone from his Dearborn office, February 13.
For Ford, the SUMURR project is a way to demonstrate how the company is an engaged stakeholder in one of its newest and rapidly growing markets. SUMURR also offers Ford an opportunity to work with social entrepreneurs and NGOs to find innovative ways to deliver much needed services too many of India’s citizens lack. Ford’s management is currently deliberating over how and where the program can be expanded; southern India was the logical choice for the pilot since the company’s first factory in India is located in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s state capital.
And for the State Department, SUMURR provided a new diplomatic tool by the launch of private-public partnerships to achieve goals Foreign Service Officers alone cannot solve. Secretary Clinton realized the State Department alone could not handle the tangled challenges of globalization and sustainable development. In partnering with the lone U.S. automaker to have a human rights code of conduct, State found a credible partner to push for social good by moving beyond conventional philanthropy and international development.
Leon Kaye explored children’s health issues in India February 18-27 with the International Reporting Project. Based in Fresno, California, he is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
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