Feature story

Business sector can play key role in the AIDS response in Africa

06 April 2011

Speakers at the Heineken HIV/AIDS Symposium 2011

Thirty years into the epidemic, is business a full partner in the AIDS response in Africa? A recent symposium hosted by Heineken N.V. in Amsterdam highlighted that there are many ways the private sector can contribute.

With Sharing responsibilities in the ‘World of Work’ in Africa as its theme, the symposium took stock of current business practices in Africa—in the workplace and beyond—and explored ways around how business good practices can be scaled up. Access to HIV treatment, resistance to treatment and gaps in funding were three of the main key issues discussed.

“There are many reasons why HIV is a smart investment for businesses,” said Dr Hedia Belhadj, UNAIDS Director Partnerships: “Addressing HIV in the workplace creates trust among staff and helps sustain productivity. Addressing HIV more broadly helps to boost consumer markets and bring about economic growth and reduce poverty.”

The symposium brought together representatives from the government of The Netherlands, including AIDS Ambassador Dr Marijke Wijnroks, international and non-governmental organizations, the public health community and the private sector.

Addressing HIV in the workplace creates trust among staff and helps sustain productivity. Addressing HIV more broadly helps to boost consumer markets and bring about economic growth and reduce poverty

Dr Hedia Belhadj, UNAIDS Director of Partnerships

Mr Ben Knapen, the Netherlands Minister for European Affairs and International Co-operation stressed the importance of partnering with the private sector to respond to HIV. “My government believes that public-private partnerships are an important tool in the response to HIV. Bringing together partners from both the public and private sectors creates the synergy and leverage we need in order to step up our efforts,” said Mr Knapen.

Private sector’s knowledge, resources, capacity and contacts are valuable resources that can contribute to an effective response to AIDS. By using their corporate communications and marketing skills, businesses can help raise AIDS awareness and promote behavioral change among employees, their families and communities. Companies can incorporate prevention messages that promote gender equality in existing communication platforms as well as instating zero tolerance policies to eliminate stigma and discrimination.

Private sector to become full partner in the global response

Two out of three people living with HIV go to work each day, according to UNAIDS. So the workplace has a vital role to play in mitigating the impact of the AIDS epidemic and facilitating access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. Workers that are living with HIV and taking effective treatment can lead healthy, productive lives for many years. Heineken—which employs more than 70 000 people worldwide—realized the value of this.

In the early 1980’s, the company began building clinics and training staff to provide health care to employees. In 2001 it adopted and implemented its HIV workplace policy which contributed to improve the response to HIV among employees and their families.

Today, the brewing group's workplace programmes include a “know your status” campaign with voluntary counselling and testing events and training by peer health educators, who also raise awareness about HIV to pupils in local schools.

AIDS committees have been established in nine breweries to also oversee education and condom distribution campaigns, information sessions for people living with HIV and awareness events around World AIDS Day.

Heineken provides treatment for all employees living with HIV and further, it guarantees treatment for employees and their families for life, regardless of whether they are still employed at the company.

Not all companies are willing to or capable of making such a commitment. The question of sustainability and the long term commitment that the company has to shoulder, given the little likelihood for national services to replicate the quality of HIV service delivery, was seen by participants as a major obstacle in implementing workplace policies related to HIV.

Dr Belhadj outlined the importance of the new ILO Standard on HIV/AIDS and the world of work. It provides a platform for business to promote healthy workplaces by defining roles and responsibilities at all levels of policy and decision-making processes, implementation, and evaluation of HIV programmes in the workplace.

Participants agreed that, to become full partners in the AIDS response, businesses need to engage in high level advocacy. The private sector can use their weight to promote accountability and transparency by reporting on money spent on social welfare programmes. They can break the upward trajectory of costs of drugs, supplies and delivery and participate in innovative public-private partnerships on research and development.