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October 01, 2004

The Changing Role of Business in the HIV/AIDS Crisis

by Priya Bery

Corporations do not operate in isolation. In fact, like nations and their populations, they have been deeply affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic as have nations and their populations. Some industries, such as the oil and extractives field, have reported that as much as 25 percent of their workforces have been infected with HIV. In addition, the dramatic escalation of the disease in the world’s fastest growing markets—including China, India, and Russia—threatens both those countries’ economic potential and their political stability. Recognition of these facts is now motivating multinational corporations and small- and medium-sized enterprises to become deeply involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS, not merely for reasons of good corporate citizenship but increasingly out of a more comprehensive understanding of corporate self-interest.

Up until this point, most entities in the corporate sector have left the responsibility for facing the pandemic up to governments, activists, and the public health community. Globally, the private sector as a whole is only doing about 5 percent of what it could be doing. Reality is dawning in sub-Saharan Africa that corporations simply must get involved in efforts to combat HIV/AIDS there. Unfortunately, just as progress is expanding there, we see inertia in other places. Very few Asian and Eastern European countries are addressing the issues, either in the workplace or in the surrounding communities.

Even when well-intentioned workplace AIDS testing and counseling programs have been implemented, business leaders are forced to admit that the utilization of HIV services by employees remains woefully low. Managers regularly report that employees are afraid to come forward for testing because they fear discrimination by companies if they are found to be HIV-positive. Granted, this is not a problem unique to business entities. The predicament exists throughout the global community, as witnessed by United Nations estimates that suggest that 90 percent of those infected with HIV do not know their status. But this is an issue business must address.

Led by over 170 international companies, the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS (GBC) has worked with the UN for the last year to officially change policy and move away from strictly passive voluntary testing and counseling to an approach that routinely offers and recommends testing. Following the announcement of that change, the GBC launched a global campaign to increase demand for and provision of testing and counseling services. Funding for these efforts has increased significantly, and the GBC is seeking the renewed support of business and community leaders, reductions in drug and diagnostic pricing, and the integration of private and public delivery of healthcare services.

But the greatest—and most direct—contribution that business can make is to confront the stigma and discrimination that has enabled the virus to spread over the last twenty years. Company-wide programs must be developed to ensure that discrimination against employees on the basis of real or perceived HIV status does not exist. Employee confidentiality simply must be made certain.

Businesses also need to capitalize on their unique strengths and match their proficiencies to HIV program areas where they can add most value. For example, media companies and consumer products industries are applying marketing, advertising, messaging, and brand promotion capabilities to public awareness and education programs on HIV/AIDS. One positive example is Black Entertainment Television (BET), the leading U.S. television network targeting the African American audience. BET is promoting nondiscrimination in the workplace and has applied its media assets to tackling HIV/AIDS among African American youth and its broader audience. In partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation and local AIDS service organizations, BET’s “Rap-It-Up” Campaign integrates network programming, public service announcements, teen forums, hotlines, and classroom connections to promote prevention and awareness—and to emphasize the importance of HIV testing and counseling.

Finally, by following good practices, the business community can support and pressure governments to act by demonstrating that prevention, testing, and treatment services can be provided effectively. Working within the business community and as part of overall community efforts, corporations can have an impact on the current crisis.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2004, Vol. 31, No. 4, p.17.

Priya Bery

Priya Bery is the director of policy and research at the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, headquartered in New York City.