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A Global Exigency

The Unspoken Smiles Foundation Tackles the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals in the Developing World.

By B.E. Sweeny

In 2015, the United Nations set forth their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which included seventeen Global Goals designed “to wipe out poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change over the next 15 years.”[1]And while there are a variety of NGO’s that are working on these various goals, The Unspoken Smiles Foundation, one dedicated to promoting proper oral hygiene and oral health awareness in the developing world, is doing so with their unique, inclusive and sustainable approach.


Goal Three: Health and Well-being


There is a direct correlation between oral health and an individual’s overall health and well-being, which is why the World Health Organization (WHO)declared it “essential to general health and quality of life.”[2] And while a variety of Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) receive the attention of the international community, oral health is often excluded from this taxonomy. Or, as the president of Tanzania, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, stated in 2011: “oral diseases are often overlooked among NCDs by the international community, and it is a health area that we cannot afford to ignore and that is largely preventable.”[3]

Through the work of Unspoken Smiles, there is a concerted effort to tackle this on a global scale and in a way that directly addresses the third goal of the 2030 Agenda: Health and Wellbeing. By implementing a combination of treatment and education, the foundation is able to provide a basic level of dental care in these communities by sending clinicians into the local schools to administer teeth cleanings and fluoride treatments to the children. Further, they teach the children proper oral hygiene techniques and show them how they should be implemented into their daily routines while providing them with the basic supplies (toothbrushes and toothpaste) to ensure they are put into practice.


Goal Five: Gender Equality


And while providing these services is an essential part of their mission, the foundation is also tackling the gender disparity that is found throughout the developing world with their Unspoken Smiles Fellowship. In this program, women between the ages of 18–35 are trained as community oral health professionals and, afterward, are employed by the foundation within their communities. As such, they begin to earn a steady income on par with their male peers, which allows them the means and support to overcome their status as second-class citizens. But such independence is only achieved through an income that allows for an adequate standard of living, which, upon graduation, is precisely what the fellows can expect.

And not only is this fellowship providing educational and economic opportunities, but it is doing so in a sustainable way. By offering these women tuition-free vocational training, they are allowing even the poorest candidates the chance to learn and, eventually, earn a wage that will lift them out of poverty. But to ensure the program is able to serve the next generation, the women dedicate a small percentage of their income to reimbursing the foundation after they graduate and secure employment.


Goal Eight: Decent Work and Economic Growth


But beyond offering employment for the women in these communities, Unspoken Smiles is redefining dental enterprise in a sustainable way. Instead of merely sending clinicians to treat these populations for intermittent periods of time, the fellowship is creating a stable body of professionals to serve as the first line of care in these communities. Upon completion of their training, the women are ready to join the workforce with a local dental office or by joining one of the mobile clinics that the Foundation is planning to create. With this program, which is still in its pilot phase, children below the age of 16 will be treated for free whereas a reasonable fee is charged for those over 18 years of age. This model not only supports the salaries of the fellows but covers the maintenance of equipment and other sundries.

And the fellows are not the only ones who benefit from the program. As Helen Clark, Administrator of the UNDP, said in 2011: “Oral diseases are an obstacle to development. Something as preventable as tooth decay can impair people’s ability to eat, to interact with others, attend school, or work. These consequences all detract from human wellbeing, economic potential, and development progress.”[4] Plainly, with healthier individuals available for school and the workforce, the economy grows. Furthermore, by attending to oral health concerns as a preventative measure, the local health system is less strained when it is not handling the myriad diseases and other maladies that stem from poor dental care.

Goal Seventeen: Strengthen the Means of Implementation and Revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development


As a newly ECOSOC /DPI NGO in consultative status with the United Nations, Unspoken Smiles have begun discussions with the ministries of health and education within the respective countries, which is the first step towards institutionalizing this world-class care. This represents the start of a strong public-private partnership between the foundation, local governments and, eventually, private companies. Traces of this can already be seen, as, during their pilot programs in India, Kurdistan, Romania, Haiti, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the foundation received a generous amount of dental supplies from the American Dental Association. And this relationship only grows stronger as they continue to build best-in-class alliances that enhance corporate and philanthropic objectives while helping save and improve the lives of children and women around the world. As a startup, they are already bringing a truly global presence, extensive expertise, influence, and credibility in their lifesaving work for children, and a brand that donors know and trust. When combined with the resources, knowledge, and commitment of SDG partners, the results can be tremendous.

Considered as a whole, these examples begin to illustrate how the Unspoken Smiles Foundation represents a major step forward in the pursuit of these goals. But as far as they have come, there are still numerous cultural, systemic and institutional barriers that they must still face. However, given the progress of these concerned individuals thus far, it is clear that process has begun and a path towards a better, more egalitarian tomorrow has been forged.


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