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Business’ Role in AIDS Epidemic Explored

By Elizabeth S. Widdicombe, Contributing Writer

Harvard became the planning ground for new initiatives in the battle against AIDS in Africa and Asia last week, as representatives of several global corporations, academic experts, Non-Governmental Organizations and a United Nations (U.N.) under secretary-general convened to assess the relationship of business to the epidemic.

In a two-day workshop coordinated by faculty from four Harvard schools—including the Business School, the Kennedy School of Government and the School of Public Health—organizers sought to “build trust among various players” in countries which are combatting HIV and AIDS, according to John C. Ruggie, the Kennedy School professor who co-chaired the event.

It was the first in a series of four events that will be held around the world to foster connections linking the business community to existing efforts to fight the AIDS epidemic. The conferences will take place in Beijing, China and Durban, South Africa, before the series concludes with a return to Cambridge in September 2003.

Participants listened to panel discussions and opening remarks by University President Lawrence H. Summers, and broke off into smaller groups to share ideas and experiences in addressing the problems posed by AIDS.

Peter Piot, U.N. under secretary-general and head of the UNAIDS initiative, said the business community possesses “skills and energy that are still under utilized” in the fight against AIDS.

Piot spoke at the Kennedy Center’s ARCO Forum last Thursday on the importance of building partnerships between leaders of local governments and the private sector.

“Government has a big role to play, but they can’t do it alone,” Piot said in a press conference on Friday. “These partnerships are absolutely vital.”

Of the 25 companies that formed the core group at the conference, most participants have already “done their homework” and have begun initiatives aimed at AIDS prevention and treatment among workers and in communities where they are invested, according to Piot.

Piot and others pointed to Anglo American, a South African mining company, as a firm that’s already having “a major, direct impact” on the treatment of AIDS in people already infected.

This August, Anglo American announced that it will provide free treatment drugs for any of its 130,000 employees who are HIV positive.

Still, businesses with operations in countries that have high rates of AIDS infection tread a thin line.

While activists have criticized several large companies, such as Coca-Cola, for not providing enough treatment for employees and their dependents, business also have to answer another question, said Kate Taylor, associate director of the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Initiative: where to draw the line between the roles of the private and public sector.

“How can you do so much but not everything?” Taylor asked, referring to the dilemma faced by many employers in African countries. “How can you not be penalized because you have started to do something?”

Heineken, as well as most mining companies, owns treatment clinics for infected employees. But Ruggie said many large companies “feel awkward finding themselves in the public health industry.”

“Coca-Cola, for example, doesn’t want to own the HIV/AIDS treatment business,” Ruggie said.

Coca-Cola announced this summer that it would collaborate with UNAIDS in a treatment program aimed at preventing new HIV infections in Africa.

For most businesses, treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS has practical as well as moral significance.

Because it affects workers in their most productive years, AIDS can be particularly devastating to a business’s work force as well as a country’s economy.

“From a micro business perspective, [investing in AIDS treatment] makes sense because of the productivity issue,” said Diana Barrett, Senior Lecturer at the Business School, who helped to organize the conference. “It’s good to keep your workers alive.”

Barrett added that AIDS creates high rates of absenteeism among employees, who must leave work to care for infected family members and attend funerals. Many companies have to train three or four employees just to keep one.

Workshop organizers described another set of challenges posed by countries such as China and India, which Ruggie said are “on an African trajectory, just fifteen years behind.”

Ruggie said businesses in these countries have an opportunity to take a leading role because their governments have not yet begun to address the waves of infection that experts predict.

“Businesses won’t solve this problem by themselves,” Ruggie said, “but it’s the secondary impact of companies’ involvement that’s important. If businesses demonstrate that this can be done, it will be a big encouragement to governments.”

Some companies, such as Coca-Cola, have been criticized by activists for not developing enough prevention strategies for future waves of the epidemic.

And Piot added that one aim of the first round of conferences was to encourage large companies to be leaders.

“You need champions,” he said, “before you can get many more players.”

According to information provided at the conference, 42 million people globally are infected with HIV/AIDS.

In South Africa, one out of five adults is infected, and, at current rates, between 10 to 15 million people in China and 20 to 25 million people in India will have contracted the disease by 2010.

Inspiration for the conference came from two graduate students: Samantha N. Bolton, a recent graduate of the Kennedy School and Daniella Ballou, who received a joint degree from the Kennedy and Business Schools in 2002.

The two collaborators enlisted Ruggie and Barrett of the Business School to help them organize the conference, find funding and attract high profile participants.

“They parked in my office and threatened not to leave until we did this,” Ruggie said.

Bolton said she was pleased with the outcome of her efforts.

“It shows that students can actually do stuff,” she said. “It took a few months, but if you find the right professor, it will work.”

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