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Hurricane Opportunity

There’s no denying that Procter and Gamble (P&G) happened to be in the right place at the right time when Hurricane Jeanne wreaked havoc in Haiti in September this year. The healthcare and household products giant was able to spring into action, together with aid agencies, to offer emergency relief to people in the west-coast city of Gonaives, providing an estimated four million litres of safe drinking water. This was possible because P&G had already shipped a million water-purifying sachets to the country for the launch of its first ‘social marketing’ initiative. This project – part of the public-private ‘Safe Drinking Water Alliance’ – includes non-profit group Population Services International (PSI) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Through social marketing, private-sector firms usually provide their products at cost price to specialist organizations like PSI, which distribute them to local populations (often in developing countries) for a small charge. Some form of public health education usually accompanies the ‘marketing’ process. So why has P&G decided to embark on this, and a similar programme due to begin in Uganda in November? There are the laudable social motives of reducing mortality and ‘integrating sustainability’ into the company’s business practices. Then there is the ‘marketing’ component, which according to Greg Allgood, Associate Director of the P&G Health Sciences Institute, is the main motivator: ‘In a lot of these countries, the commercial potential is limited, because of their [lack of] infrastructure. To be successful here would be outside our capability, because we would not have the necessary distribution channels.’ Teaming up with NGOs, which may be the only organizations with a local presence, is an effective way to get a company’s product out there and known among potential consumers. While P&G won’t be making any profits from its social marketing programmes, it certainly sees them as a long-term investment that should eventually bring some financial benefit. Allgood doesn’t beat about the bush: ‘We will learn about consumers in countries that we are not in now and that will translate into top-line growth over time. In Haiti and so on, we are opening up the way for a whole portfolio of P&G products.’

Banana benders

For more than 20 years, Nicaraguan banana plantation worker Maria Isaidris Cruz Salgado has suffered from scabs affecting her whole body. When she got pregnant, she swelled up so badly that the foetus – which had no bone structure – had to be cut out. In February, Maria Isaidris walked the 160 kilometres from her town to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. She was with thousands of other workers who – like her – claim to be suffering from exposure to pesticides containing the chemical agent dibromochloropropane (DBCP).

Their goal was to enlist government support in their fight for compensation from the companies they hold responsible: transnationals that allegedly sold and used the pesticides in Central America even after DBCP was banned in the US in 1979. After several weeks of camping rough outside the National Assembly in appalling conditions the workers returned home armed with government promises of aid. But those promises have so far proved empty.

Empty too have been the compensation awards initially promised by the legal system. At the end of 2002, a Nicaraguan court ordered Dow Chemical, Shell Chemical and Standard Fruit (now owned by Dole Food Company Inc) to pay $489 million to some 500 banana workers allegedly affected by DBCP. The companies refused to recognize the ruling, arguing that the particular law (Law 364) it is based on is, as Dole put it, ‘unconstitutional and violates international due process’.

]The workers’ attorneys then attempted to get the judgement enforced in the US but, rather incredibly, translation errors led to an initial dismissal. Efforts are now under way to have that decision reversed. Meanwhile, the plan is to try to get this ruling, and a further one delivered in March, executed in other countries where the companies have assets, such as Venezuela and Ecuador. Legal administrator Walter Gutiérrez argues: ‘We have a judgement that is enforceable in any country. The companies can’t hide from the facts. We will go after them all over the world for every penny.’ Unsurprisingly, the transnationals are fighting back hard. While Shell says it ‘sympathizes with those people in Nicaragua who are claiming they have been affected’, it continues to assert that its product ‘was not sold to Nicaragua’ despite court rulings to the contrary. Rather than pay the compensation awards, the transnationals are placing a string of legal obstacles in the workers’ way. Earlier this year, Shell and Dow filed an action asking a California court to declare any future rulings based on Law 364 unenforceable in the US. Dole’s strategy is even more confrontational: it is now trying to sue some of the workers and their lawyers for allegedly falsifying evidence. As the legal charade unravels, thousands more claims by banana workers are waiting in the wings. Lawyer Juan J Dominguez filed a lawsuit in April on behalf of 25 workers, which will be heard in Los Angeles. One of the biggest challenges facing him and his clients will be proving that the workers’ symptoms have been caused by DBCP. While it is widely recognized that DBCP can cause sterility in men, its link with other health problems such as cancer remains hotly contested.

For now, the impoverished workers remain stuck in legal and medical limbo. With government assistance lacking, the workers risk being run over by cash-rich transnationals able to keep bringing their cases back before the courts. According to Alistair Smith, international co-ordinator for UK campaigning organization Banana Link: ‘Certainly the workers are not expecting to see any money tomorrow. And in the meantime, people keep on dying.’

Social justice for sale

Emerging from the specially built El Maresme/Fòrum metro station in Barcelona, the signs for the ‘Universal Forum of Cultures – Barcelona 2004’ point towards a mass of unfinished high-rise buildings. In the midst of this tangle of would-be hotels and office blocks nestles the Forum site – right beside the sea and slap bang on top of a sewage treatment plant and waste incinerator. It’s hardly an ideal location for a UNESCO-backed event that trumpets ‘sustainable development’ as one of its core themes. Greenpeace has condemned the Forum infrastructure as ‘an attack’ on the fragile Mediterranean coast. Two-thirds of the $2.5 billion investment in this urban redevelopment project comes from the private sector. The rest is public money. Opposition groups have criticized the Forum as ‘the big ad, the glossy decoy designed to lure profiteers into the largest property speculation operation in the history of Barcelona’. They argue that local residents are losing out as their neighbourhoods are ‘devastated’.

These forum sponsors have been given exclusive deals to supply the event.

Unsustainable site for sustainability talks.

Once inside the site (the entry for which is a hefty $26 per day) it doesn’t get much better. The two other major themes of the five-month extravaganza of conferences, exhibitions and concerts are ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘peace’. In marquees daubed with these buzzwords there are installations examining human rights, fair trade, the impact of war and the arms trade. But the school kids – who are the Forum’s biggest customers so far – seem more interested in splashing around in the water park and watching the attractions, which include a giant animated sea monster.

Hungry and thirsty? How about one of the ‘multi-cultural’ dishes served up by catering giant Sodexho? Or maybe a Coke or a bottle of Nestlé water? In exchange for sponsorship to the tune of $86 million, multinational companies have been given exclusive deals to sell their products on site. Their names feature heavily on Forum publicity. ‘For us it’s a great match,’ says Juan José Litram, Corporate Affairs Director in Spain.

Not surprisingly, economic and social justice campaigners see it differently. To Mike Brady of Baby Milk Action, an organization that has long criticized Nestlé’s baby-food sales strategies in developing countries, ‘it is typical of Nestlé’s desperation to improve its image and link with youth initiatives that it is sponsoring this event.’

These contradictions have caused some big names – including French farmer-activist José Bové – to turn down invitations to speak at the Forum debates. The ‘dialogues’, as they are called, may tackle worthwhile themes such as ‘globalization and development’, ‘freedom, security and peace’ and ‘some unheard voices’. Yet in one session, six children who had travelled thousands of miles to recount their tough and inspiring experiences of working for peace and a better life spoke to a half-empty auditorium.

To fill seats, organizers are now offering university students cut-price entry fees to the debates. They still hope that the Forum will attract five million visitors and become a regular event to be held in a different city around the world every few years. But like the micro-waved pizza on sale at the site, it seems to offer little more than a mass-market, watered-down version of diversity and development that leaves a nasty after-taste in your mouth.

Megan Rowling