June 21, 2001

U.N. Welcomes Corporate AIDS Funds

Associated Press  from the LOS ANGELES TIMES



UNITED NATIONS... Moves by corporations outside the pharmaceutical industry to get involved in the AIDS fight have been welcomed at the United Nations. But some activists wonder if the initiatives constitute good will -or just good public relations.

This week, Coca-Cola and DaimlerChrysler announced AIDS-related programs. The auto manufacturer will pay for AIDS drugs for employees in South Africa. The soft drink giant offered the same for its African employees and will lend its trucks to distribute condoms and educational pamphlets to hard-to-reach areas there.

Other companies are also involved. MTV airs free public service announcements on AIDS, and a division of Estee Lauder donates the proceeds from a $13.50 lipstick line to AIDS programs in the countries where the product is sold.

But as next week's U.N. summit on AIDS approaches, there have been few corporate contributions to a global war chest that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says is key to fighting the pandemic. Annan has said $7 billion to $10 billion is needed to combat AIDS, but the fund has taken in just $528 million so far.

Sharonann Lynch of Global Treatment Access, an AIDS advocacy organization, said serious corporations and nations should focus on contributing to the fund.

"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 said.

Robert Lindsey, a vice president for Coca-Cola Africa, said the company had the best of intentions. "Anybody who thinks this is just P.R. is being very cynical," he said.

Nigeria's ambassador to the United Nations, Chief Arthur C.I. Mbanefo, saw little in the Coca-Cola program beyond "a corporate promotion."

"Coke could have given $100 million without batting an eye," he said. "This company is looking at its bottom line and tax breaks." Nigeria is one of five countries that has more than 2 million citizens living with HIV or AIDS.

Annan and other U.N. officials have worked hard to get big business involved in fighting a disease that has taken more than 22 million lives. The United Nations AIDS agency hooked up with Coke and the U.N. Development Program has used proceeds from a MAC Cosmetics lipstick line for programs in Africa.

Executives from Coke, DaimlerChrysler, AOL Time Warner and other corporations will attend a high-profile meeting with Annan during the June 25/27 AIDS conference.

But none of those invited to meet with Annan next Tuesday have contributed to the global fund.

The fund, which is expected to be operational by the end of the year, has received $200 million from the United States, $127 million from France, $100 million from Britain, $100 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and $1 million from Switzerland's Winterthur Insurance.

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette said Wednesday she expected significant contributions to come from the international community during the gathering -where world leaders hope to map out a strategy to tackle the killer disease affecting some 36 million people worldwide.

"Clearly, businesses have not done enough," said MTV International's Bill Roedy, who chairs the Global Business Council on HIV and AIDS. Hoping to sign on more companies to its AIDS initiatives, the council chose the well-connected former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, as its new president.

"Businesses spent over $100 billion to prepare for Y2K and Kofi is only asking for $7 -10 billion," Roedy said. Aside from humanitarian reasons, Roedy said companies need to realize that in areas around the world, AIDS is "shrinking their employee force and their customer base."

Kate Krauss of the Health GAP Coalition, an AIDS advocacy group in Philadelphia, said Coke scored a "public relations coup," by offering treatment for 1,500 direct employees but not for thousands more working for the bottling and truck driving companies affiliated with Coke.

"If they really want to be heroes, Coke should offer treatment to the truck drivers that will be hauling those AIDS education pamphlets around," she said.

Acknowledging that some companies may be seeking publicity, Roedy said the council would find some way to monitor the actions of businesses that join the council's commit to the AIDS fight.

Several AIDS advocates welcomed the corporate efforts but questioned the effectiveness of some campaigns, like that of MTV, which has a very limited reach in Africa. Others said corporations should not be expected to take over governments' responsibility during a health crisis.

"It's a mistake that so much emphasis has been placed on private contributions," said Robert Weissman of Essential Action, a corporate-accountability watchdog founded by Ralph Nader.

"It is the obligation of governments to contribute to the fund and respond appropriately to the pandemic," he said, adding that "the big concern with corporate funding is that it may not be sustained in the same way that one would expect from governments."

On the Net:
Official conference site  http://www.un.org/ga/aids
Joint United Nations  Program on HIV/AIDS http://www.unaids.org
Treatment Action Campaign site for AIDS in Africa, http://www.tac.org.za