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Business’ Role in AIDS Epidemic Explored

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.

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“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.

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