Business leads the way

Whether through self-interest or altruism, multinational companies play an increasingly important role in combating HIV. Kathryn Tully meets two key figures in the global campaign to save lives


Ever since the United Nations called for private-sector help to deal with the global HIV epidemic in 2001, multinational companies have worked on drug discovery and distribution, employee testing and treatment, global educational outreach, and HIV-related poverty and hardship. In many cases, these efforts have trounced the work of national governments.

“Health issues cross borders,” says Michael Schreiber, managing director of GBCHealth. “No government has a footprint in China, Vietnam and Thailand, but a global bank might. Multinationals have the resources and geographic spread to tackle HIV everywhere.”

GBCHealth, originally known as The Global Business Coalition on HIV/Aids, was formed in 2001 to help global companies tackle HIV/ Aids and to facilitate partnerships between companies, governments, multilateral organisations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It partners with more than 200 global companies and has offices in New York, Johannesburg, Beijing, Nairobi and Moscow.

Many of those companies have set up HIV education, prevention and treatment programmes out of selfinterest, ensuring that employees stay productive and consumers stay healthy. But whatever the motivation, the collective impact has been so great that it has spurred public policy changes. “Think how long it took the South African government to recognise the problem of HIV,” says Mr Schreiber. “Without lobbying from companies operating there, it would have taken even longer.”

He explains that public policy often lags behind corporate action because, whereas politics drives governments, companies are driven by efficiency. So whereas public needleexchange programmes, for example, are often considered controversial, similar company-wide initiatives are popular because they are seen to work.

The work of GBCHealth’s member companies has evolved dramatically since 2001, a time when access to medication and creating general awareness were still fundamental challenges. Since the introduction of antiretroviral drugs, companies are focused on increasing drug funding and distribution, while advocacy targets high-risk groups. Companies without an HIV policy are rare and, increasingly, those operating in locations where both HIV and tuberculosis (TB) are prevalent, such as mining firms, are tackling co-infection.

Yet the hotspots are constantly changing. Mr Schreiber cites newly resurgent HIV epidemics in the United States, in Washington DC, for example, where 3 per cent of the population is infected. For 18 months, Pfizer sales reps have been handing out literature to doctors there to persuade them to routinely offer patients HIV testing. “It’s been a very successful programme that has changed screening behaviours, which has ultimately meant more people are getting treated,” he says.

Companies might be forced to do more now government budgets around the world are shrinking

Despite the progress, companies are often reluctant champions of their own HIV awareness programmes. “Many companies think that organisations driven by revenue and profit are considered suspect when they talk about anything else,” says Mr Schreiber. “If you don’t acknowledge new developments that benefit society, it’s a problem because, when governments see something working, it’s easier for them to push ahead.”

Not all companies are wallflowers in this area. Take MAC Cosmetics, which launched the MAC Aids Fund back in 1994, and ploughs the proceeds from its Viva Glam range into HIV/Aids programmes. It is now the largest non-pharmaceutical fundraiser for HIV/Aids organisations globally, funding programmes providing nutritional support, housing, healthcare assistance, testing, and those tackling transmission among young people, abused women and prisoners, to name but a few.

One of the hallmarks of MAC’s Viva Glam campaigns, which have to date raised £150 million (US $235 million) for the fund, is its celebrity spokespeople who appear in highimpact advertising and champion the cause. RuPaul was the first spokesperson in 1998, but there have been 20 since, including Elton John, Christina Aguilera and Cyndi Lauper.

The current spokesperson is Lady Gaga, who is passionate about the cause and approached the company about getting involved. “Gaga is 25 years old,” says John Demsey, chairman of the MAC Aids Fund and group president of Estée Lauder Companies, which owns the MAC brand. “The first spokespeople were affected by Aids when they were already adults. Now our spokespeople have grown up in a world knowing nothing but Aids. They speak authentically to their generation, where there’s a lot of complacency.”

Lada Gaga’s global influence, demonstrated by her 16 million Twitter followers and 45 million Facebook friends, has led to record-breaking sales. In the UK alone, the campaignraised £1.3 million in MAC’s 2011 fiscal year, a 91 per cent increase over 2010. That cash supports UK and South African programmes, including one by UNICEF, which has already prevented 50,000 motherto- child transmissions of HIV.

However, according to Mr Demsey, the company was not always so public about its work. “We were a little on the fence about how much we wanted to tell people at first,” he says. “We didn’t want to seem self-congratulatory, but if we don’t sell the lipstick, we can’t raise the money or give it away.”

He says that the tightrope which companies often tread, when both highlighting and profiting from such a campaign, are irrelevant in MAC’s case because 100 per cent of Viva Glam proceeds go to the MAC Aids Fund. “If people benefit from other corporate giving, that’s great, but we are not selling something we earn money from, whether that is medication or food supplement. This was done for purely altruistic reasons.”

Still, the Viva Glam celebrity campaigns are central to MAC’s brand identity and corporate brands undoubtedly benefit when consumers endorse their approach to global concerns. Mr Schreiber thinks that, if more companies approached HIV/Aids prevention from the top down, much as they appoint chief sustainability officers to champion environmental concerns, they would quickly reap still greater benefits, spending less while winning over consumers.

Companies might be forced to do more now government budgets around the world are shrinking. That problem is compounded by complacency over the epidemic, even though Aids remains a top-ten cause of global mortality, which has meant infection rates in some developed countries have increased.

“From the late 1990s to the early-2000s, this was a fashionable cause to support, but now most governments and organisations are complacent that there is a cure for Aids, and that this is a managed healthcare issue when that’s not the case,” says Mr Demsey. “That puts a tremendous responsibility on us.”

Yet having met orphans of the disease and patients around the world, he’s seen first-hand how the fundcan radically improve people’s lives. “You can intellectualise this and discuss how countries have been robbed of their manpower,” he says, “but until you grasp the terrible human cost, you will never understand the whole picture.”