Outsourcing our foreign aid to the Coca Cola corporation sounds like something The Chaser would come up with but in fact it’s a proposal being seriously floated by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  In the following piece Dr Melissa Stoneham discusses this idea and explains why Coca Cola’s impact on health in developing countries is no joke.

Dr Melissa Stoneham writes:

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the Liberal Federal Council last Saturday night that there is too much waste in aid spending, and partnering with the private sector will achieve better results. Ms Bishop said she was not satisfied with the way Australia had distributed aid in the past, saying there was, “too much duplication, too much waste, not enough of a focus, spending money, doing what we’ve always done and not coming up with a better result”.

She mooted that the Government would move toward private sector networks as part of a focus on the “economic security for the recipients of our aid.” With the foreign aid budget set to lose $4 billion a year over the next four years, this all seems to be a reasonable solution until you uncover which private enterprise she specifically named in her presentation. Ms Bishop used Coca-Cola as an example of the type of industry that could “do a better job at distributing foreign aid”.

The argument for using an industry that sells and promotes sugary drinks with no nutritional value as a distributor of the tax payer funded aid budget revolved around the fact that Coca-Cola is available everywhere throughout the Pacific including remote villages, any hill top and major centres. It is the distribution networks and their supply chains that the Government wants to take advantage of.  But really, who is taking advantage of who here?

Let’s look at the industry first. Coca-Cola has positioned itself as wanting to be “part of the solution” to the obesity epidemic by increasing the availability of smaller portion sizes, offering more low-kilojoule products and supporting physical activity programs.

This approach has been slammed as a “smoke screen” by many public health advocates including Professor Rob Moodie who commented that if Coca-Cola was serious about fighting obesity, “they would be doing things that really do work. They would be restricting advertising to young children and they’d be encouraging other companies to do the same, and they wouldn’t put 10 teaspoons of sugar in a can of Coke”.  

In a nutshell, Coke contributes to chronic disease and its core business is to make money and sell their product. They are not public health experts. They focus on physical activity and lower kilojoule drinks to draw attention away from the contribution of their products to overweight and obesity.

They have been very successful at ensuring their corporate social responsibility (CSR), which “accepts 10 principles of the UN Global Compact, outlining business principles for companies in social, economic and environmental areas” encourages the general public to view them as well meaning and indeed being part of the solution. Put simply, Coca-Cola is endeavoring to show that they have a positive impact on the environment, consumers, employees and society, in addition to making money for their shareholders.

When you look at how Coca-Cola has been distributing medicines through Africa, you can see how politicians may be influenced by this opportunity. The network of their local bottlers has been cited as being critical to reach consumers. The Colalife program started in Zambia way back in 1988. It was noticed that while hospitals ran short of basic medicines, stores in remote locations were always full of fizzy drinks. In an effort to curb diarrhea, the AidPod was developed. This device contains hydration salts, which mothers mix into a drink to give to children to rehydrate them. The AidPod fits into the unused space in Coke crates.

There are other examples, ColaLife is not the only project using Coke’s 20-million-point global distribution network. In 2009, the Global Fund asked Coca-Cola for support to distribute Anti-AIDS drugs and vaccines. The result was the development of the basics of supply-chain management which mapped out health facilities, used software to organise distribution and implemented a new stock-management system.

So it seems Australia is following suit. The business model of private-public partnership seems sounds and appears to foster collaborative action to improve people’s health and wellbeing. I am a public health advocate and I understand the need to provide lifesaving medicines to the vulnerable and ill. However, my concern is that these companies’ are investing in CSR activities such as distributing medicine and aid, to shift responsibility for overconsumption from corporations to individuals, to promote self-regulation, anticipate any Government regulation and promote brand loyalty and sales.

It is important to always remember that industries such as Coca-Cola have been at the forefront of long-term food industry trends that have contributed substantially to poor health and, increasingly, have drawn comparisons to the behaviour of cigarette companies.

It is equally important to remember that the product they market which is readily available to vulnerable communities including “every remote village and every hilltop in the Pacific” has no nutritional value at all. In this case where Australia’s Foreign Minister is considering using Coca-Cola to distribute aid, it is a clear example of how the industry has accessed and will indeed influence our policymakers.

Research conducted in the tobacco field showed how CSR activities such as the one suggested here, is a form of corporate political activity that potentially has important implications for public health. It found that tobacco companies have been influential in delaying and blocking health-related tobacco control policies and that the impact of the political use of CSR can affect senior policymakers if they are considered a reliable source of information.

As a colleague of mine asked, when she saw the media release suggesting that the Australian government would use Coca-Cola to distribute aid: ‘I would love to know who approached who with this deal, and how much money is exchanging hands’. So would I!

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