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Technology, Business and Society Programme Paper 12: Waking Up to Risk: Corporate Responses to HIV/AIDS in the Workplace

17 Nov 2003



Today, November 17th, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) published a paper on the response of the corporate sector to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in developing countries.

Among other findings, the paper reports that only 21% of the 100 largest corporations confirmed to the UN that they have workplace policies and programmes on HIV/AIDS. The study also finds there is a wide variation in the specific HIV/AIDS prevention and mitigation aspects of those policies and programmes, and differing coverage provided to employees and their dependents. It finds that communities, suppliers and subcontractors are rarely covered by policies and programmes, even though most company respondents consider that HIV/AIDS—and the risks it poses to their workplaces and other business operations—must be tackled beyond the workplace.

Most companies do not consider how their normal operations and strategies affect poverty. This is despite evidence that some normal practices of TNCs influence poverty levels in developing countries, and the UN General Assembly Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, which emphasized the importance of poverty in the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS.

Hence the main analytical finding from this research is that the corporate sector is just beginning to wake up to the risks posed to business operations by HIV/AIDS and has still to awaken to its wider responsibilities, which arise from its influence over the conditions that encourage HIV/AIDS prevalence and undermine possibilities for mitigating its effects.

Released to coincide with the opening of UNRISD’s two-day international conference on Corporate Social Responsibility and Development at the UN in Geneva, the author of the report, Jem Bendell, suggests that the international community must act to ensure more companies are not only “waking up to risk” but also “awakening to responsibility” for socioeconomic conditions that influence people at risk from, or living with, the virus.

One possible route forward emerges from the analysis, involving the financial community. Bendell argues that HIV/AIDS may pose significant risks to current and future corporate financial performance, so that the financial community should increasingly be asking whether the companies they invest in are attuned to that risk and managing it accordingly. It is argued that this risk cannot be managed effectively by individual corporate action, but requires an economy-wide response. Hence joint action from the financial community may help institutionalize corporate responses, while sensibly extending the risk management approach to include the risks to economies and societies as a whole. Despite a few new initiatives in the financial sector, there is much still to be done.

Jem Bendell is a visiting fellow at Nottingham University Business School, and a consultant to international organizations, currently with the UN’s Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS). He has published many articles and two books on corporate responsibility, including the edited volume Terms for Endearment: Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development (Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield, 2000). For more information, visit www.jembendell.com.

Order PP TBS 12 from UNRISD ($12 for readers in industrialized countries and $ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students). The report is also available electronically and without charge from UNRISD’s website: www.unrisd.org