Corporate AIDS Initiatives in Africa — Good Will, Good Business Sense, Or ‘Just Good P.R.’?
Announcements this week of AIDS-related initiatives by Coca-Cola and Daimler-Chrysler have been "mostly welcomed at the United Nations" but have fueled speculation among activists that the moves are "just good public relations" rather than "good will," AP/CNN.com reports. Coke, Africa's largest corporate employer, recently announced a new joint initiative with UNAIDS that will utilize the company's marketing expertise and distribution network to disseminate HIV prevention materials and condoms to "hard-to-reach" places. The soft drink maker also pays to treat its HIV-positive employees. Daimler-Chrysler also announced it will provide free AIDS drugs to its infected South African workers and their families. The CEOs of both corporations will join U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other business leaders Tuesday for a "high-profile" meeting during the U.N. special assembly on HIV/AIDS. But despite "hard" pushes from Annan and other U.N. officials, none of those invited to the meeting have contributed to the proposed U.N. Global AIDS and Health Fund, which is seeking $7 billion to $10 billion to fight HIV/AIDS in developing countries. So far, the fund has received donations totalling $528 million, a "far cry" from the amount AIDS experts say is needed to curb the spread of HIV. Winterthur Insurance, a division of Credit Suisse, has contributed $1 million to the fund, the only corporate donation made so far, with the rest coming from the United States, France, Great Britain and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The fund, not private initiatives, is where corporations "should focus their attention," Sharonann Lynch of Global Treatment Access, an AIDS advocacy organization, said. "What we've seen from industry, be it pharmaceuticals or soda companies, is that they take opportunities like this to announce positive public relations campaigns, often without even consulting with governments and organizations on the ground," she added. But Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, said it is "not so bad" if the companies do not donate to the fund, as long as they "take these initiatives." U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette said Wednesday that she "would hope and ... expect, that we will hear more indications of commitments from the part of donor countries during the special session" (AP/CNN.com, 6/21).
Making Business Sense
Meanwhile, NBC's "Nightly News with Tom Brokaw" reported Wednesday that the Coke and Daimler initiatives show both a humanitarian concern for workers and good business sense for the future. Alexander Cummings, president of Coca-Cola's African division, said, "Our employees are as affected as the entire continent. We believe that if we don't get involved in AIDS today, the impact on our business, although minimal today, will increase exponentially." Coke has found that HIV/AIDS has caused increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, and employee deaths. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who now leads the Global Business Council in its efforts to "get companies to do more," said that private corporations must not replace the role of governments, but must instead work with them. Holbrooke said, "Government has to take the lead. But in many parts of the world, the governments just aren't up to challenge. There is too much social and political stigma attached" (Thompson, "Nightly News with Tom Brokaw," NBC, 6/20). Other corporations implementing HIV-related initiatives include Debswana, a joint venture between the Botswanan government and the diamond firm DeBeers, which announced in March that it would "subsidize" antiretroviral medications for its employees and one spouse in order to "extend employees' productive lives." The company employs 6,000 people at its three mines and accounts for a third of the world's diamond supply, 80% of the nation's export earnings and half of the government's revenues (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 3/8). In addition, Anglo American PLC, a London-based mining conglomerate that employs more than 160,000 workers in Africa, last month unveiled plans to offer its African employees and their spouses anti-AIDS medications, saying it had been "profoundly affected" by HIV/AIDS, which is responsible for frequent absenteeism and higher medical costs (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/7).