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International Business Invests in Fighting AIDS in Africa

The slogan for World AIDS Day – “Stop AIDS: Keep the Promise” – asks the public to keep the pressure on social and governmental bodies to keep commitments they’ve made to battling the disease. One group that activists are encouraging to become more involved in prevention and treatment programs is the business community.

John Tedstrom, the executive director of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (, says private entrepreneurs are already involved. The coalition is made up of more than 220 international companies committed to marshalling the resources of the business community against the disease.

“My philosophy,” he said, “is…. that in the fight against AIDS, we must go beyond philanthropy. HIV/AIDS is a core business issue – it’s not just another philanthropy like the national opera or local library in terms of giving for corporate social responsibility. “He says the disease attacks young people, including workers, disproportionately: “These are people who are the most economically productive in the work force. If they have HIV/AIDS, they represent a tremendous business liability, in terms of absenteeism, more mistakes on the job, and lower productivity.”

Tedstrom cited several examples of business involvement in alleviating HIV/AIDS. He said, for example, that the pharmaceutical giant Merck has invested 50 million dollars in a successful partnership with the government of Botswana and the Gates Foundation to treat HIV/AIDS. As a result, Botswana is one of three African countries that has provided relief for more than half of those in need of anti-retroviral therapy.

In another example, the clothing company The Gap and the financial services firm American Express have launched (Product) Project Red, a major marketing campaign in which a percentage of revenues goes to the Global Fund to Treat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

In addition, Abbott Laboratories and Bristol-Myers Squibb are spending millions of dollars to improve Tanzania’s health care infrastructure, including the training of medical workers and laboratory personnel.

Bristol-Myers Squibb has also funded three hospitals for pediatric AIDS in Africa, in Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho. Additional centers are expected to open in Burkina Faso and Uganda within the next two years.

In Kenya, Unilever has set up the Kenya HIV/AIDS Private Sector Business Council, which provides information and resources to help employers combat stigma against AIDS. It also offers voluntary testing, counseling and treatment to its employees.

Tedstrom commented on a recent visit to a mine run by De Beers Diamond Mining Company: “I had a great experience a month and half ago visiting the Debswana Mine in Jwaneng [120 kilometers west of the capital, Gaborone]. It has built a world class facility treating not only HIV positive employees but their family members. I was impressed by the sophistication of the medical staff there, the infrastructure of the clinic itself….”

Tedstrom said the business community has become a promising new player in the war on AIDS: “The ability of the NGO community and some of the underdeveloped medical systems in some regions,” he said, “often are limited in ability to absorb tens of millions of dollars of donor funding at any given moment.

“[However] the private sector – with its huge infrastructure, its ability to build clinics, to take care of a community in which it works, to do co-investment with donors… that is a tremendous way to bring projects to scale and to leverage each others’ resources, expertise and infrastructure.”

Tedstrom said The Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS is working to develop national business associations in each country. It’s also working with labor unions to help develop educate workers about AIDS, and to provide treatment for the disease.

He said experience with businesses and unions in other parts of the world show the importance of fighting stigma and discrimination against infected workers. It also shows the need to promote safe sexual practices and treatment programs among commercial sex workers, as well as mothers who he said help promote safe behavior and strong families that can protect themselves from the disease.

Tedstrom said it is the coalition’s job to try to help businesses find strategic partnerships and decide where they can best leverage their resources in fighting the disease.

Nearly 24 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

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