Corporate Partnerships to Combat HIV/AIDS

A senior lecturer at HBS, Diana Barrett is a member of the Social Enterprise core group. Diana has received both her MBA and her Doctorate in Business Administration from HBS. She has spent most of her professional career to date exploring the applicability of corporate models to the health care field as well as other community based needs, working extensively in India and South America. Her current research explores the range of activities that private and publicly held companies can initiate in order to make meaningful changes in the social sector.

Diana Barrett teaches Business in the Social Sector, but next fall the course will change in scope and emphasis and be called Strategic Corporate Citizenship. A range of models will be explored that corporations use to become more effective in the ways in which they deal with external stakeholders, including partnerships, and other collaborative ventures in order to gain increased bottom line benefits.

Harbus: Why should businesses be involved with HIV / AIDS?

DB: We first have to consider the magnitude of the HIV / AIDS epidemic: 3.1 million people died from AIDS in 2002; that is the equivalent of five 9/11 tragedies on a daily basis. Such numbers are difficult to comprehend: entire villages are being decimated to a point where impact of the epidemic can be viewed from satellites as entire regions are depopulated. Besides the human tragedy, the impact on business is enormous.

Businesses are first faced with a productivity issue: most AIDS victims are between 15 and 45 years old and belong to the most productive part of the working population. Employee training becomes a daunting task as companies have to train several workers in order to retain the necessary number of employees. Low morale and heavy absenteeism become critical issues for those companies where 90% of the workers attend 3 funerals per week! The HIV / AIDS pandemic has really changed day-to-day productivity to an extent difficult to imagine.

This is today’s reality in South Africa, but this could be commonplace in China or India, two countries where the HIV / AIDS epidemic is at the level of Africa 10 years ago and is following the same exponential trend.

In these parts of the world businesses cannot ignore HIV / AIDS any more.

Harbus: But is it businesses’ responsibility to address the HIV / AIDS issue?

DB: The whole society has to be mobilized. It is certainly the governments’ responsibility to play an essential role, but the unique capabilities of business give this sector new responsibilities: the same companies that have the distribution network, the skill set and the financial acumen to make Coca-Cola available in every miniscule African town, have the ability to apply these capabilities to the problem of HIV / AIDS, with an efficiency, flexibility and speed that governments can simply cannot match. Because the HIV / AIDS epidemic heavily affects their financial bottom line and because businesses have unique resources that can be very efficiently leveraged against the epidemic, and because corporations do and should take a leadership role, addressing the HIV / AIDS issue has become a more common corporate responsibility.

Harbus: What are the problems faced by businesses that try to address the HIV / AIDS issue?

DB: For a number of reasons, it is indeed a difficult issue to deal with for companies. For example, if we say “a good company treats its dependents”, does “dependents” imply treating the family of your workers? What if some workers have a second wife? Should the children of the second wife also be treated?

Another example: should companies address the problem of prostitution, a topic that is usually viewed as being beyond corporate borders? In Africa, some mining companies have thousands of male employees separated from their families for 7 to 8 months at a time, and provide 5 condoms per month. Are these companies behaving responsibly? It is perhaps time for companies to start fundamentally re-thinking the way they are operating their business. Some mining companies, for example, are considering changing the traditional hostelling of isolated workers.

Starting to have those conversations is already a cultural revolution for most businesses, where words like family, death, or sex were not even part of the vocabulary. Addressing such questions is a paradigm leap for corporations. But as there are no easy answers, businesses need help in facilitating this process, understanding where to start and what to do.

Harbus: How is the HIV / AIDS conference organized last week at Harvard helping businesses understand what to do?

DB: This conference was organized by the Business School, the Kennedy School, the School of Public Health and the Medical school.

It is the first of four workshops gathering business leaders, government officials, experts and academics from around the world to understand the role and responsibilities of businesses in addressing HIV / AIDS. The greatest benefit of the first workshop has been to gather, for the first time, all these leaders in one place where everybody felt encouraged to explore issues and share ideas openly.

The next two workshops will take place in reverse order, first in Asia (Beijing)and then Africa (Durban), on the occasion of the regional conferences of the World Economic Forum in those cities. Major state leaders, along with trade unions, NGO’s, and business leaders will focus on the issues specific to these regions, sharing experiences, challenges and success stories. A last workshop will reconvene in Cambridge at Harvard Business School on September 4th & 5th 2003. The objective will be to apply the skill sets of the various schools to the problem and to develop and broadly communicate a set of best practices that might be useful to companies already engaged in the problem of HIV / AIDS in the workplace, as well as to companies that would welcome tools and techniques that would enable them to act strategically and proactively.

We hope to do this by means of a forum where key stakeholders can convene and consider a range of initiatives in this arena.

Harbus: Could you give us an example of how business skills can contribute to concrete solutions?

DB: Yes, the most promising approach is the idea of “partnerships”. Companies can partner in their efforts against HIV / AIDS in order for each individual company to avoid reinventing the wheel. In South Africa companies are already leading the way in getting together to organize certain activities that might be shared, such as employee counseling, providing prevention information, assistance to families, and in many cases, treatment. The reality is that the recent availability of low cost treatment (Anti-Retroviral Therapy, or ARV) makes it possible for employees to come forward, receive counseling, perhaps tell their families and see a future, for many, a first in a country where a diagnosis with HIV / AIDS has meant a virtual death sentence.

We need to further explore the circumstances and governance structure under which such collaborative ventures can work best. This is an area of interest that we have developed here at the business school; in the Initiative for Social Enterprise for example, we have studied a range of collaborative efforts between private and public sector enterprises.

Perhaps the most critical issue here is that no system will be effective and no effort will be sufficient if outstanding leaders do not drive these changes and initiatives. The sheer enormity of this epidemic has led to courageous business decisions as CEO’s worldwide understand that acting proactively is the right thing to do and also economically advantageous. The challenge is only beginning and we hope that these four conferences will play a key role.