Charities and business

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Charities and business

Ian Brown writes about the close relationship between the big charities and big international businesses.


© Johner Images/Alamy

‘It’s a very important time for the world’s children,’ says Justin Forsyth in Save the Children’s 2013 annual report. He is right. Wars with no reason, people losing their land because of climate change, more and more rightwing politics – people are suffering. And children and women always suffer most.

‘It’s a time of opportunity, challenge and responsibility,’ Forsyth says. ‘To help children, we need to work in different, new ways.’ Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB’s boss, agrees: ‘Our challenge is to continue to do this work, but also, to do more.’ CARE International, too, really want to do more to give power to women and girls.

In these bad economic times, these three international NGOs together had $3.2 billion to spend on the poor last year. Save the Children UK got 20-per-cent more money in 2012-13, $525 million, partly because of business donations, which increased by a third from 2012 to $40 million in 2013.

Partners with business

It is not new for businesses to give money to international NGOs. CARE USA has worked with Coca-Cola for thirty years. ‘We are very happy that people and partners give us money and trust us,’ says CARE in its 2013 annual report. CARE gets money from Coca-Cola, arms manufacturers General Electric and Boeing, clothing companies Nike and Gap, and many other companies. Oxfam, too, is happy to work with businesses. Save the Children says clearly to businesses: ‘If you work with Save the Children, this could help you sell more and get more customers.’

But are these partnerships good for everyone? Or does someone lose? Erinch Sahan (Oxfam private-sector adviser) wrote: ‘I want to believe that trying to get more money will result in a sustainable world and the end of poverty.’ One partnership is between Save the Children and the very big pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Since 2011, Save the Children has had a lot of help from GSK. GSK gave 20 per cent of the money it makes in the world’s least developed countries (only a very small percentage of the $7.5 billion profit it made around the world in 2013) to projects to help healthcare and support the research and development of medicines for children. Save the Children’s website says this will help a million children because of a new agreement with GSK to improve children’s health in some of the poorest countries of Africa.

But on Save the Children’s website, it does not talk about one of GSK’s other products - the antidepressant Paxil (Seroxat/paroxetine) – which is not good for children. In 2012, GSK had to pay a $3 billion fine to the US government when they agreed they were guilty of paying money to doctors to give Paxil to children (when they knew this drug was not suitable and not approved for children). Save the Children say they would always speak out about what is right, even when they have a partnership with a company. But when someone asked them to say something about the Paxil problem, they said they knew about the problems, but they believe there are more good things in their partnership with GSK than bad things.

Oxfam has a vision of a world where everyone has enough to eat. We can see this in the ‘Behind the Brands’ campaign - it promises to ‘give people... the information they need to make the Big 10 [global food and drink producers] more responsible’. One of the Big 10 is Unilever. Oxfam criticised them in the past, for example about land rights. Unilever will not require 80 per cent of the farms it works with to think women have the right to own land until the end of 2017. In the past Greenpeace said Unilever got its palm oil from Indonesian suppliers who destroyed and burnt good land. Unilever had to pay a $120 million fine to the European Commission for fixing prices in Europe with Proctor & Gamble.

There is a lot of criticism. But ‘Unilever is fighting against climate change and working to help poor farmers,’ says Penny Fowler, head of Oxfam’s private sector team. ‘[W]e will continue to work with Unilever and other companies because it is good for business and for everyone to reduce world poverty and inequality.’ Oxfam now helps Unilever in the ‘Corporate engagement’ programme ‘to bring thousands of small farms into their [Unilever’s] global supply chain’. But is this really a new way of ending poverty or is Oxfam helping a rich company get richer (but not helping the poor farmers)? Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, is sure that this helps Unilever. He says thank you to ‘partners who are helping us to set up this new business model’.

CARE USA is also very happy to work with big international businesses. ‘[We] believe that this is very important to help with world problems. Our partners really want to develop and support plans that build stronger communities in the developing world and also improve business and development.’ The Nike Foundation is one of their partners. They agreed to give 1.6 per cent of the money they make before tax to charities. They are working ‘to help teenage girls to end poverty for themselves and for the world’. Nike calls it ‘the girl effect’.

In 2000 a BBC documentary showed child labour and bad working conditions in one of Nike’s factories in Cambodia. The documentary showed 7 girls as young as 12. They all worked 7 days a week, often 16 hours a day. Many people around the world have said since the 1990s that it is terrible that Nike use sweatshops (factories with bad work conditions). But in 2013, Nike said that a third of the factories it works with, about 300,000 workers, still did not meet Nike’s minimum standards to treat workers.

Too close

Is Nike really a caring company that helps? CARE wants us to believe this. Or have all three NGOs become too close to uncaring big businesses? Do they prefer big, famous projects that give food and medicine to people who need them, and lots of money to the big businesses? Or can they also work to change the causes of poverty?

Businesses and charities have become very close. You can see this from the people at the top of the NGOs. Alex Cummings is treasurer of CARE USA and executive vice-president of Coca-Cola. Save the Children’s director of human resources, Paul Cutler, used to work for GSK. Oxfam trustee Dame Marjorie Scardino, on the Forbes rich-list, is a non-executive director of Nokia, who give money to Oxfam.

There are also many close connections to powerful politicians. Two men (Save the Children’s Justin Forsyth, who earns $200,000, and Oxfam trustee David Pitt-Watson) both used to advise UK prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But it is much more worrying that large international NGOs are helping people to accept companies like GSK, Coca-Cola, Nike and Unilever. Instead, they should force them to work in responsible ways. Big international companies only use social responsibility projects to make people think they are good. So do NGOs really need to work with them?

Ian Brown managed charities for 15 years in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia for Oxfam, the Mines Advisory Group and Terres des homes.

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