By: UNICEF Thailand
A strategic partnership between UNICEF and Sansiri Plc., one of Thailand’s largest real estate developers, has led to new regulations for mandatory salt iodization in Thailand in an effort to address the devastating effects of iodine deficiency disorders in children.
Iodine is a mineral essential for human development and growth. The human body needs iodine to produce the hormones that regulate the thyroid gland, which is responsible for controlling a number of critical body functions such as heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure. Iodine deficiency disorders are the most common cause of preventable brain damage and intellectual disability among children worldwide. Even a mild iodine deficiency in the general population can result in significant loss of learning ability and a severe decline in individual IQ. Iodine deficiency primarily affects the developing brain and leads to cretinism and other physical and mental impairments. The use of iodized salt is the most cost-effective and efficient way to ensure adequate iodine intake in the daily diet. The World Bank reports that it costs US$ .05 per child, per year.
In Thailand, where only about half of households use iodized salt and most other common food seasonings are not iodized, iodine deficiency had been a major threat to children’s development for over 50 years. To address this and to protect children, UNICEF had been advocating for regulations mandating the iodization of all salt for human consumption. Progress towards that goal, however, had been painfully slow.
To accelerate progress towards universal salt iodization in Thailand, UNICEF began in 2009 to employ a more strategic and evidence-based advocacy approach, building on lessons learned from other countries and engaging in strategic partnerships to promote the adoption of universal salt iodization legislation as the best way to combat iodine deficiency disorders.
In May 2010, UNICEF was approached by Sansiri Plc. about making a donation to the organization. When Sansiri’s president, Srettha Thavisin, was told during the initial meeting that, instead of funding, UNICEF would rather have Sansiri’s support in promoting key policy changes for children, he was intrigued. And when Thavisin learned about the threat posed by iodine deficiency disorders to the well-being of children in Thailand and the impact this would have on the country’s future social and economic development, he committed himself and Sansiri to helping UNICEF address this issue.
With extensive support from Sansiri, a major public campaign branded with an ‘Iodine Please’ logo was launched to encourage support for mandatory salt iodization. Sansiri tapped into its extensive corporate resources to help develop and distribute numerous messages highlighting the benefits of iodized salt and, through its business and political contacts, helped UNICEF reach key decision makers at the highest levels of government.
UNICEF and Sansiri launched the multimedia ‘Iodine Please’ campaign in July 2010. Sansiri used both mass media and its own media to draw public attention to the need for universal salt iodization to address the problem of iodine deficiency disorders in Thailand.
To support the campaign, Sansiri spent about US$ 700,000 on costs related to media coverage and promotional activities. Sansiri paid for advertisements in 16 leading newspapers and magazines and for the creation of billboards and posters to advocate for the consumption of iodized salt. Sansiri organized eight large exhibitions to promote the campaign at mega-shopping malls and office buildings, as well as at a hotel where the government was holding a major conference related to children and development issues. Three of the exhibitions resulted in substantial television news coverage, with on-air interviews on the importance of salt iodization to tackle iodine deficiency disorders. Sansiri also organized a pop concert to promote the campaign, manufactured and distributed T-shirts, tote bags and pamphlets with ‘Iodine Please’ messages.
Sansiri also developed a dedicated ‘Iodine Please’ website and used social media platforms to broadcast messages on Facebook and Twitter. The website featured 11 videos of local celebrities promoting iodized salt as well as an animated video encapsulating the campaign’s key messages concerning iodine deficiency disorders and universal salt iodization.
Another major contribution from Sansiri was its capacity to leverage relationships with high profile political decision-makers in order to promote salt iodization.
This campaign, combined with UNICEF’s ongoing, long-term efforts to promote salt iodization, resulted in a drastic change. The Thai Ministry of Public Health adopted regulations on mandatory iodization in September 2010 which took effect in January 2011 with strict enforcement and heavy fines for non-compliance starting in June 2012.
In December 2010, Sansiri and UNICEF received awards from the Prime Minister of Thailand for supporting iodine deficiency control efforts. In May 2011, Sansiri won the Enterprise Asia’s Asia Responsible Entrepreneurship Awards program (AREA) for the South Asia sub-region. This Award recognizes and honors Asian businesses for championing sustainable and responsible entrepreneurship.
Promoting universal salt iodization to combat iodine deficiency disorders is now perceived as a major development challenge. The partnership resulted in greater awareness and understanding of issues related to iodine deficiency and gained political support for universal salt iodization at the highest level. For example, the Prime Minister of Thailand discussed iodine deficiency disorders and the need to use iodized salt during several weekly national television broadcasts. The Thai Minister of Public Health also actively promoted legislation in favor of universal salt iodization.
The new regulations on salt iodization are potentially the greatest public health victory for children’s health in Thailand in many years. However, the regulations need to be effectively enforced if they are to have a positive impact on children’s health, a challenge that the campaign is now addressing.
Lessons learned and way forward
In supporting the campaign, Sansiri clearly recognized the important role of the private sector in the development of Thailand and in addressing critical development issues for children. The impact of this support also shows the added value the corporate sector can bring far beyond simply donating money.
In this case, the partnership has benefited largely from Sansiri’s capacity to mobilize its resources and technical expertise to design creative communication material and disseminate a large number of messages through mass communication and social media. The level of creative resources provided by Sansiri for the campaign, as well as the number of messages designed and the speed with which they were disseminated, were beyond the reach of UNICEF or any other development organization. In addition, Sansiri’s contacts gave UNICEF critical opportunities to present to decision makers at the highest levels.
The partnership experience also presented some challenges for UNICEF, including speeding up internal processes so that the campaign with Sansiri could move forward quickly.
The successful collaboration between UNICEF and Sansiri led to the signing of a formal three-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in December 2010. Under the MOU, Sansiri will continue to support the ‘Iodine Please’ campaign to promote enforcement of new regulations.
In addition, a new advocacy campaign with Sansiri is being launched in 2012 to promote another vital issue – the importance of early childhood development and on-time enrollment in primary school. Sansiri has also adopted and is carrying out child-friendly business practices and has agreed to serve as a “corporate champion for children” to advocate for other corporations in Thailand to adopt child-friendly business practices.
Under the new MOU, Sansiri also agreed to make a minimum annual contribution of US$1 million to UNICEF for emergency response for the period 2011-2013 as a demonstration of its willingness and capacity to set new standards for the private sector in Thailand. Sansiri’s first US$1 million contribution was made directly to UNICEF Headquarters in September 2011.
This support to UNICEF’s global emergency work indicates the openness of the Thai private sector to address critical development issues for children around the world. It also reflects the fact that Thailand is becoming much more active on the global stage.
UNICEF aims to cultivate relationships with other corporations to follow Sansiri’s example of dual track support for children, both in Thailand and globally, as well as to build on the strong progress Sansiri has already made in adopting child friendly business practices.
The partnership worked well and quickly to achieve its objective and the support from Sansiri was relatively easy to gain once UNICEF presented a robust and evidence-based business case for the elimination of iodine deficiency disorders in Thailand through universal salt iodization.
While the issue of iodine deficiency is rather straightforward to explain and communicate to corporate partners, presenting a strong business case for the engagement of the corporate sector in more complex issues, such as those related to statelessness, equity and social protection, appear to be much more challenging in Thailand.
For more information on this partnership, please contact Pornthida Padthong, UNICEF.