The 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland has concluded.  Today, I returned to Washington, put away my snow boots, and began the process of sorting through hundreds of business cards.  It was an exhausting week, but I landed at Dulles energized by the collaborative ideas and commitments generated at this year’s Forum – particularly with regards to global health. 

Davos is a bit like corporate speed dating. As a representative for my global health nonprofit, PSI, I sat down for numerous 30 minute “dates” with corporate leaders from around the world. Like any first date, each was an opportunity to evaluate if/how a partnership would work – Do we have similar or complementary interests? Are our values the same? We both came to the table interested in increasing our bottom lines.  For organizations like PSI, that line is measured by health impact and lives saved.  For corporations, the bottom line is opening new markets, developing a new consumer base, and being a good global neighbor. 

View Photo Gallery: Once again, the world’s richest and most powerful get together in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

At the end, it was profoundly clear that we could achieve both goals by working together. 

This realization of the power of partnership encapsulated WEF Founder Klaus Schwab’s theme and vision for Davos 2012 – “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models.”  He urged the creation of a new “collaborative power” to increase opportunity and prosperity around the world.  The new partnerships established at Davos to improve global health will help make his dream a reality.

The economic impact of health is clear.  In 2012, billions of people remain in poverty. Many of them lack access to basic health care and, as a result, suffer needlessly from preventable diseases like malaria, HIV, diarrhea, and pneumonia. As a result, children are kept home ill from school.  Young people cannot join the work force. Mothers die in childbirth. Parents and caregivers cannot support their families. Economic growth and prosperity are limited – or worse, impossible.

Simple investments in health today will have long-term benefits – for families, for markets, for companies - for everyone.

The key to achieving that goal is partnership between the private and public sectors.  Unilever was one among many companies at Davos that displayed a fresh understanding of that important truth.

On Friday, Unilever launched the Unilever Foundation – a new initiative designed to improve hygiene, sanitation, access to clean drinking water, basic nutrition and self-esteem for children and families worldwide.  The Foundation is the fruit of a new partnership between Unilever and five global health organizations: PSI, Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and the World Food Programme.

I was inspired by Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s words:

“The current challenges our economy and our planet are facing require new partnerships. No one sector can solve them alone. At Unilever these partnerships reflect our new business model, and are helping us provide solutions to big social and environmental problems in a way that is equitable, sustainable and drives growth.”

Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weeds echoed Mr. Polman’s words, “In my view, the transactional Corporate Social Responsibility Model is an outdated model. It is being replaced by a more integrated transformational approach to providing social benefit. Our Unilever Foundation is a reflection of that. We want a .com not a .org relationship with our Foundation partners, where we use our scale and expertise from our core business and marry it with the expertise of NGOs to develop scaleable solutions.”

The Unilever Foundation is the epitome of the comprehensive approach corporations are now applying to their business models- recognizing that the long term sustainability of markets, consumers, and producers is vital.  While at Davos, PepsiCo Chairman & CEO Indra K. Nooyi reiterated this philosophy, stating, “short term profits and long term sustainability are not mutually exclusive.”

Dialogue and collaboration between companies like Unilever and Pepsi and organizations like PSI defined the spirit of this year’s World Economic Forum.  I left Davos with the feeling of real accomplishment and a sense of real anticipation. The 2012 Forum stuck to its theme and provided a platform for real action - for effective partnerships to form.  We are no longer just talking about it, we are doing it, and our future world will benefit from it.   Going forward, all sectors - government, NGOs, civil society and the private sector – can and must work together.   I look forward to helping PSI fill critical gaps in between these sectors, and I feel poised to do that with our corporate friends in tow.

Kate Roberts is the vice president for Population Services International.