Private-sector AIDS action secures public partnerships

With global companies exponentially expanding their operations to emerging economies, we are witnessing a new form of collaborative corporate advocacy.

With global companies exponentially expanding their operations to emerging economies, we are witnessing a new form of collaborative corporate advocacy.

A public affairs practice currently nameless, but already evident in China, I endorse widespread adoption of Cause-Related Government Relations (CRGR). In enabling companies to build deep and trusted relationships with governments also addressing society's most pressing social problems, CRGR is beneficial to all parties that embrace it.

Demonstrating the validity of this new model mandates close examination of China's recent rise to fame. Today, every global company is convinced that China is critical to its future success. In 2005, the country produced $1.65 trillion in goods and services and is becoming the world's manufacturing center.

But China also faces significant challenges. The country reports 840,000 HIV/AIDS cases among its 1.3 billion people, but experts believe the number is much higher. The World Health Organization, for example, says that with the virus spreading rapidly from high-risk groups to the general population, China could have 10 million infected people by 2010. A clear concern for the Chinese government, the AIDS epidemic is also a business issue, for no one is immune to the disease. Throughout the country, skilled, white-collar workers are already in short supply. This problem will be exacerbated as the disease claims lives and contributes to increased work absenteeism.

Companies can either ignore the situation, or they can seek inspiration from the Chinese word "weiji." Composed of the characters "wei," which means danger, and "ji," which means opportunity or crucial point, weiji demonstrates the Chinese belief that any crisis presents a moment of opportunity alongside a clear and present threat.

This word accurately summarizes the situation now before us, for whether we like it or not, AIDS is a crisis. We can ignore it, or we can behave proactively, anticipating its future - and undeniable - impact on our entire economies, individual company profitability, and civil society. On March 18, at the Joint Summit on Business and AIDS in China, the Chinese government acknowledged that very fact.

Before 450 senior-level representatives of business, government, multilateral organizations, and civil society, Vice Premier Wu Yi articulated the government's determination to fight AIDS and called on the business sector to help.

"To prevent and control HIV/AIDS is not only the obligation of the Chinese government, but also the responsibility of the entire society, including the business sector," Yi said at the event, which was co-sponsored by the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS and the Chinese Ministry of Health.

Twenty-six companies agreed. By World AIDS Day on December 1, Anglo American, APCO Worldwide, Bayer, BD, Beijing Air Catering Co. Ltd, BP, BMH Instruments Co. Ltd, Gobon Guilin Latex, GlaxoSmithKline, Horizon Research Group, Johnson & Johnson, Lafarge, MAC Cosmetics, MSD China, NBA, Ogilvy PR Worldwide, PFT Group, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Ltd., Qingdao Double Butterfly, Rio Tinto, Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos., SOHU.com, Standard Chartered Bank, STAR, TOTAL Group, and Unilever all established or committed to implement non-discrimination HIV/AIDS policies for their China-based employees. Similarly, the British Chamber of Commerce also pledged to support policies designed to protect HIV-positive employees from discrimination by their employer or other employees.

In pioneering AIDS efforts, these 26 companies capitalized on an invaluable opportunity. Besides serving as laudable role models that might inspire other private-sector action on AIDS, these companies are denouncing the danger of denial; they are deliberately taking action to prevent a disease that could decimate their workforce and the countries in which they operate.

But these are just the obvious benefits. Implicit in company action on AIDS is an open acknowledgement of a willingness to work with the government on the greatest humanitarian crisis affecting mankind. This is CRGR, and it may be the easiest - and most logical - way for companies to create meaningful public-private partnerships.

CRGR sets a positive precedent, placing companies in a powerful and privileged position. Indeed, by signaling its willingness to work with government, a company proves that it can be counted on as an ally both now and later. In this sense, CRGR creates a history of trust between companies and governments. It is the key to building deep, permanent relationships that will transcend current CEOs and executives, ensuring future collaborations and mutual good will.

World AIDS Day was just commemorated, making it difficult to assess the long-term impact of the 26 companies' AIDS commitments and CRGR. However, it does not take great imagination to anticipate that when the government needs a corporate partner, it will look to the first companies that supported Yi's powerful proclamation.

Trevor Neilson is executive director of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS.

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