Private Firms Ideally Situated to Fight HIV/AIDS in Africa
Private corporations "possess some of the best transportation and distribution systems" in Africa and often number among the largest employers on the continent, making them perfect candidates to disseminate AIDS information and health supplies to the African population, the Boston Globe reports. Several large corporations, including Coca-Cola, Shell Oil and Puma, have volunteered to participate in efforts such as AIDS education campaigns and marketing for prenatal care programs in Africa. But a report to be released next week by the Corporate Council on Africa, which represents the largest U.S. companies operating in Africa, states that "much greater participation" from businesses is needed to stem the epidemic. The report, which outlines "best business practices" for fighting HIV/AIDS, suggests that companies first aim to provide AIDS education and support for their own employees, Joe Sills, co-chair of the task force appointed to study the issue, said. "A corporation is going to come out far better by dealing initially with AIDS in its work force and trying to provide information to its families, than simply saying, 'This is going to cost a lot of money up front,'" Sills said. He added that the task force "strongly recommends voluntary and confidential" HIV testing for African employees "as long as it is permitted in the host country." Sills said that the next step for companies is to assist with anti-AIDS messages by "follow[ing] socially responsible practices" and "pay[ing] attention to AIDS" in the work force. Robert Hecht, who has headed a UNAIDS team tasked with seeking out "corporate commitments" to anti-AIDS efforts, added that corporations should use their transportation and distribution networks to help dispense items such as testing kits and condoms. "You go to very remote parts of countries, the mail might not make it, electricity may not be there, medicines may not be in the health centers, but Coke makes sure that its drinks are in the small shops," he said.
Time for a Change
AIDS activists and some business leaders say that such efforts by corporations are "long overdue" and that companies should be doing more to combat Africa's AIDS epidemic. Richard Holbrooke, president of the not-for-profit Global Business Council on HIV/AIDS, said that he hopes to expand his organization's participation from 20 to 200 businesses, each of which would pay $25,000 to join. "So far in the fight against AIDS, corporations have done a tiny fraction, significantly less than 10%, of what they ought to be doing, or what they could do. I understand that businesses need to do things in their own interests, so we have to show businesses that it is in their own interests to work on this problem," Holbrooke said. He added that many companies in Africa are hiring extra workers to replace those expected to die of AIDS-related illnesses. But Asia Russell of the AIDS group the Health GAP Coalition "questioned" companies' motives in launching anti-AIDS campaigns. "It's almost like some are making statements to calm investors above all else. They talk about doing the right things for the wrong reasons. I think we need to force this question of what corporations should be doing in order to make use of their incredible wealth to serve the interests of not just their own employees, but all the people of Africa," she said (Donnelly, Boston Globe, 9/4).