Partnerships with multinational companies like Coca-Cola in child health programs can work to help save lives but decades of well-funded public relations campaigns against corporations by NGOs has turned letting companies fund programs into an ethical minefield.
ColaLife, a charity formed by British couple Simon and Jane Berry, worked with Coca-Cola to learn about the distribution channels the company uses in developing countries. With this knowledge, they devised a system to ensure life saving treatments reach children with diarrhea in remote parts of Zambia.
Within a year, their program sold to community retailers 26,000 Kit Yamoyos, which contain oral rehydration salts (ORS) and zinc treatment for diarrhea. Treatment rates increased from less than 1% to 45%, a "prize for collaboration", write the authors. Mean distance to ORS access was reduced from 7.3 km to 2.4 km.
They say that connections with companies, such as theirs with Coca-Cola, can combine the "best of what each partner has to offer--knowledge, expertise, reach, and resources--and bring them together in pursuit of collective development objectives."
Kit Yamoyos are now manufactured in Zambia and cost about $1 from local retailers.
"With treatment rates still at less than 1%, diarrhea is still the second biggest killer of children aged under 5. So, the question is, do we leave them without access to proved treatment? Or do we try something different and manage the risks of the ethical minefield?" they ask.
But companies are in business to sell products, not to promote child health, and the connection with multinationals such as Coca-Cola presents an "ethical minefield", argues Nick Spencer, Professor of Child Health at the University of Warwick, UK. As is often the case, wealthy academics in the first world find it easy to criticize people on the ground making a real difference.
Kit Yamoyo has no connection to Coca-Cola at retail level so they have zero reason to spend any money on it, but Spencer argues they must be gaining some kind of "legitimacy" from helping an unknown small charity in Africa. He seemingly cannot accept that anyone outside his aesthetic self-identification can care about people without being paid.
And then it is common to claim Coca-Cola is causing obesity and diabetes. Basically, Coca-Cola cannot win when the culture war says their existence is guilt and then there is mention that Coca-Cola is ranked 11th in tax avoidance among the US multinational companies compared in a report by the US Senate published in 2012. So all of their work helping poor people with diarrhea is invalidated.
As an economic alternative universe to what works, Spencer speculates that if such tax avoidance were to stop - and there is no evidence they have avoided any taxes in Africa - the tax revenue could fund the government's distribution of free ORS and zinc and fundamental public health measures such as infrastructure for water and sanitation.