Today, on the 23rd World AIDS Day, an array of civil society organizations will be touting their achievements, or at least their expenditures, in the fight against HIV/AIDS. But, as Sonia Shah pointed out recently on ForeignAffairs.com, it is increasingly the case that private companies are leading the charge in this area. Resource Initiatives research has documented this phenomenon in the gold mining industry, where HIV infection rates historically surpass national averages almost everywhere the mines operate. Shah cites the example of Gold Fields, which has reduced the incidence of sexually transmitted disease among its workers in Ghana by 90% since 2004.
As Shah reports, it is not just in the gold industry where private players are having the greatest impacts. To the contrary, the resources and even capabilities of private companies now dwarf those of the World Health Organization, such as those of Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil and Pfizer. Even within the WHO’s budget, private interests now fund four of every five dollars.
In part because private companies are sometimes to blame for creating conditions where infectious disease can flourish, such as underground mines where the inhalation of dust can cause silicosis, a precursor to tuberculosis, the companies have both a direct responsibility and a vested interest in controlling disease among their workers, customers and other stakeholders.
This news is both encouraging and concerning: while it is only right for companies to help alleviate the social ills which they help cause, the global trend of private natural resources companies taking on what should be governmental responsibilities is not one that will contribute to sustainable development.