Press Releases

    7 May 2002

    Power, Strengths of Business Community Must Be Tapped to the Full in AIDS Fight, Says Deputy Secretary-General, in Remarks to Better World Campaign

    NEW YORK, 6 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following are the remarks of Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette to the Better World Campaign Breakfast on HIV/AIDS and Business in Denver, Colorado, on 6 May:

    Let me thank Mayor Wellington Webb and Mrs. Wilma Webb for hosting this event. Mayor Webb, allow me to applaud you for your commitment to the fight against AIDS worldwide, and your personal engagement in that issue. And let me thank the many other people here who are engaged in the work for global health and development.

    I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you this morning about HIV/AIDS -- and about the role the private sector can play in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It is a chance for me to explain why the international community -- including the business community -- needs to pull together in fight. And why doing so may be in your own interests, as well as in the broader interest of humanity.

    HIV/AIDS is a global problem of catastrophic proportions. Experts now agree that it is the worst epidemic humanity has ever faced. It has spread further, faster and with more devastating long-term effects than any other disease. In many countries, it perpetuates the spiral of poverty, destroys the fabric of whole communities, and stands in the way of social and economic progress.

    The statistics should speak for themselves.

    -- Sixty million people have already been infected and, of those, more than 20 million have died.

    -- More than 13 million children have been orphaned.

    -- Forty million people are now living with the virus.

    -- Every hour of every day, almost 600 people are infected.

    AIDS is uniquely disruptive to economies because it kills people in the prime of their lives. Four out of five people dying from AIDS are in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Especially in its early stages, the epidemic tends to strike urban centres, the better educated, the leadership elite and the most productive members of society.

    A study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found the highest prevalence rates among white-collar executives, followed by foremen, and then workers.

    These deaths leach profits out of businesses and economies. The loss of every breadwinner's income reduces the access of dependants to health care, education and nutrition -- leaving them, in turn, more vulnerable to infection. This cycle need be repeated only a few times and AIDS destroys an entire community.

    Africa has been hit disproportionately hard. Studies show that by the beginning of the next decade, South Africa's gross domestic product -- which represents 40 per cent of the region's economic output -- will be 17 per cent lower than it would have been without AIDS.

    And by 2020, if current trends continue, the total workforce in 15 countries analysed by the International Labour Organization will have shrunk by 24 million people, as a result of AIDS.

    But the economic havoc of AIDS is not confined to Africa. It is building at alarming rates around the world -- including places not so far from here. In the English-speaking Caribbean, it is now the leading cause of death among young people between the ages of fifteen and forty-four.

    Eastern Europe -- especially the Russian Federation -- is experiencing the fastest-growing AIDS epidemic in the world. In 2001, there were an estimated 250,000 new infections in this region, bringing to 1 million the number of people living with HIV.

    In India and China, two of America's largest export markets and sources of supply, the spread is particularly disturbing. Unless there is a major scaling up of prevention efforts, the two countries together could have 10 million or more HIV-positive citizens by 2005.

    Nor should we fool ourselves into thinking that AIDS is only a problem in the developing world. In the prosperous West -- including this country -- the threat of HIV/AIDS is by no means over. While we saw decreases in the number of new infections after a peak in the 1980s, we have seen no decline for the past three years. Statistics point to stalled prevention efforts, with a dangerous trend towards more relaxed attitudes and risky behaviour, as compared to the relatively successful prevention campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s.

    Some startling figures from the Centers for Disease Control, released just two months ago, show that half of those in the United States infected with the virus either do not know it or are not receiving treatment.

    The negative impact on business activities -- particularly in the developing world -- should be obvious.

    But even if your company is not directly active in the developing world through investment or trade, the cost of AIDS will still be felt. The epidemic is a threat to overall global security and stability. No need to take my word for it: a CIA report has stated that the burden of infectious diseases will add to political instability and slow democratic development in several continents. That is certainly not good for business, which depends on stability and predictability to operate to its full potential.

    And as AIDS creates more poverty and deepens inequalities, it fuels the growing public backlash against globalization. This sentiment will only get stronger and more widespread if we do not show ourselves determined to mount a really serious response. That means business -- which has profited most from globalization -- will come under more and more public pressure to provide a response.

    So what can business do? Can it really make a difference? There are already several examples that prove the unparalleled positive impact corporate action can have in the fight against HIV/AIDS -- both in the workplace and by contributing more widely to global efforts through advocacy and donations.

    The first line of action begins in the workplace. Companies can draw up effective AIDS policies in consultation with employees. Corporate programmes to educate the work force about HIV can become a cornerstone of the global prevention campaign. And when staff are affected by HIV/AIDS, employers can and must support them and their families by providing voluntary and confidential testing, counselling and treatment.

    The International Labour Organization has drawn up a voluntary code of practice on HIV/AIDS to help secure conditions of decent work and social protection in the face of the epidemic. The code contains practical guidelines that can be used as a basis for action at enterprise, community and national levels. It covers areas such as prevention, care and support of workers infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, and elimination of stigma and discrimination.

    In the developing world, treatment used to be regarded as prohibitively expensive. But the rapidly falling price of HIV-related drugs is changing the whole outlook on treatment possibilities. As anti-retrovirals become more widely affordable, it is now more profitable for companies to treat their HIV-positive employees than to recruit and retrain new ones, as untreated workers die. Indeed, one recent study in Africa showed that treating HIV-positive workers paid for itself up to 10 times over.

    Volkswagen do Brasil offers a good example the approaches I have mentioned. In 1996, the company launched a comprehensive programme for HIV prevention and education in the workplace, as well as treatment -- including anti-retrovirals -- and counselling for workers living with HIV and AIDS. The company also introduced a strong policy to end discrimination and ensure confidentiality.

    Within three years, the company saw a 90 per cent reduction in hospitalization among HIV-positive workers, and a 48 per cent reduction in the cost of treatment and care. Nine out of 10 workers living with HIV were able to remain symptom-free and productive. This led to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, reduced loss of employees to AIDS, and higher morale in the work force. As a result, many families kept their breadwinners, and many children still have their parents.

    To learn more about fighting AIDS in the workplace, companies can join the Global Business Council on HIV/AIDS -- a consortium working together to introduce better workplace practices, and to encourage chief executives to be leaders and innovators in the battle to halt the spread of the epidemic.

    Of course, the contribution of business to the fight against AIDS goes far beyond the individual workplace. Business can have a wider-ranging impact, as advocates for change: by speaking up about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and what can be done to stop it. Silence and stigma drive the virus underground and fuel its spread. Speaking up helps to halt it.

    Companies can use their skills and assets in marketing and communications, through product packaging and through advertising. They can help build the logistic expertise and the capacity needed to deliver supplies of prevention and care materials. And they can use brand loyalty to help boost commitment -- especially among young people -- to the fight against AIDS, as well as linking brands to a goal of social responsibility.

    Business can offer its expertise in public affairs, human resources, and corporate strategy planning, to help AIDS service organizations and community groups, which are on the front line in the fight against the epidemic, and desperately need these skills.

    In Thailand, some insurance companies encourage their corporate policy holders to develop HIV workplace programmes, and offer preferential rates to those customers that do. They have seen reduced costs as a result of healthier workforces, and gained new business by building a reputation for looking after their policy-holders.

    Finally -- whether you are a business, an individual or a foundation -- you can contribute as financial donors. The total spending on AIDS prevention and care in low- and middle-income countries needs to rise to $10 billion each year. That is at least five times the amount that citizens, national governments and international donors are currently spending on the disease.

    As a mechanism for mobilizing some of this extra money, a new channel has been created over the past year to support national programmes and strategies against AIDS and other infectious diseases. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is open to funds from both government and private donors. This Fund is not a traditional United Nations entity, but a new form of independent public-private partnership governed by a board of representatives from governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and foundations.

    Only a year after it was proposed by the Secretary-General and others, the Global Fund is already operational. Contributions from both private and public donors stand at almost $2 billion. Two weeks ago, it announced its first round of grants -- a total of almost $400 million over two years going to 40 programmes for prevention and treatment in 31 severely affected countries. This already represents a significant increase in international spending to combat AIDS and other infectious diseases.

    You can also donate to the various United Nations entities working jointly under the umbrella of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) runs programmes for children's health, school AIDS education, and the prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) works for reproductive health, including family planning and the prevention and management of sexually transmitted diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides medical advice to health ministries in developing countries through standards, guidelines and research.

    You can also contribute to a wide range of non-governmental organizations -- many of which have built up outstanding experience in developing countries and work hand in hand with United Nations organizations. And you can team up as partners to foundations -- including the UN Foundation, which has invested some $45 million over the past four years in projects to curb the spread of AIDS.

    Ladies and gentlemen, only through a truly global alliance will AIDS be defeated. In our shrinking world, all of us need to be involved in the solution because -- one way or another, sooner or later -- all of us will be involved in the problem.

    Business represents one of the most powerful forces in the world, but it has yet to be fully utilized in this fight. It is high time we tapped its strengths to the full.

    Of course, AIDS is, first and foremost, a humanitarian imperative. And so in this case, there is a happy convergence between doing good business and doing good. I hope you will seize that opportunity, and I thank you all for listening today.

    * *** *