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Last Updated: 02/01/2006Bono Promotes Trip Down Memory Lane
The purpose of a corporation is to make money. So who is really going to benefit from Bono's much-hyped Product Red?
When I saw the widely reported news of Bono’s role in the establishment and promotion of Product Red and the claims that were being made for the role of corporations in helping to raise the urgent funds required for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria, my mind wandered somewhat. This was partly because this particular form of so-called corporate social responsibility seemed likely to benefit corporations more than the Fund. Maybe that thought arose because we had recently discussed on one of our courses at the University of Peace The Corporation, the 2004 documentary which sought to demonstrate that the Corporation had much the same characteristics as that of a human psychopath. On the other hand while the documentary was a bit misleading in places, it is hard to escape the fact that corporations have a duty to make the best possible profit for their shareholders and this must limit their capacity to give much cash away without something in return. The corporations engaged in Product Red, therefore, are legally bound to make profits: whatever they make available for the Global Fund can never be greater than the increased profits accruing to those companies for their involvement in the exercise.
My mind wandered a bit further than that. In fact it strolled a long way back down memory lane. I was wondering why none of the companies involved in Product Red were pharmaceutical companies. As it happens, my post-graduate thesis at the London School of Economics (LSE) way back in the sixties was on the origins of the pharmaceutical industry. Working on the thesis at LSE however was not that pleasant. In those days, the library at LSE was cramped, the corridors dirty and over-crowded and the food in the refectory well known as being the worst of all the London University Colleges.
I sought out a quieter, more relaxed and comfortable library and better, cheaper food. I found both at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a post-graduate college of London University. Post-graduate doctors and medical professors had the edge on the economists by, well, a huge margin.
What seems especially strange now about their library were the deep leather armchairs, next to which (as I recall) were placed small oak coffee tables on which there sat an always scrupulously cleaned ash tray. Yes, ashtrays in the library. In those days almost everyone smoked tobacco, if not cigarettes, pipes and cigars, especially when relaxing or thinking. My tutor’s study at LSE reeked of pipe smoke. The walls, books and furniture were all thoroughly impregnated. I did not smoke but actually adored the smell in the days when passive smoking was not even a twinkle in the eyes of researchers. (Actually, as I recall, the first negative research results relating to tobacco and pregnancy come from research carried out at the Institute of Education which is just across road from the London School of Hygiene).
As I read away at the library and consulted the archive at one of the pharmaceutical companies, I did come across a growing sense of business responsibility back in the nineteenth century among what were called chemists and druggists as these wholesale and retail traders (not always with the highest of reputations) gave way to manufacturing. As a small example an early nineteenth century entrepreneur refused to wrap his goods in the indigo paper which was the norm for pharmaceutical products because the dye used in the manufacture of the paper was known to be harmful to the workers. Now, as time has gone on, the reputations of large pharmaceutical companies have taken a long series of blows. But high profits are still the order of the day among the major pharmaceutical companies with huge sums spent on research, and on their jealous guarding of patents and regular high profile court actions of one kind or another whether it is to do with Lipitor or Vioxx or whatever name brand and for whatever reason.
Professor Richard Feachem who is now leading the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria, I am sure, welcomes cash from whatever source: governments, business, philanthropists, though thus far of the $4.7 billions raised only $5 millions have come from corporations. For many years Professor Feachem was Dean of the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I am not sure if he recalls the deep leather chairs and scrupulously cleaned ash trays or even if he ever had a thoughtful pull on a pipe. Fashions change and new research findings flow in as regularly as the Thames flows out to sea, but the drive for corporations to make profits is unlikely to abate, especially as the global world is the world of the expanding corporation. Does anyone really believe that Bono and the handful of business supporters are going to change the limited and self interested world of the corporation?
Bono honestly makes no predictions on this score but if he is wrong and corporations gain more than the dying, he is prepared, he says, for egg on his face. Well, as matters are progressing, there’ll be plenty of other celebs at Davos next year to wipe it off. Judging from this year’s list, he could take his pick from Angelina Jolie, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere or Youssou N’Dour. I know who I would choose.
Oh, and in the 24 hours before you started reading this article, 6,500 people in Africa died of Aids.
Simon Stander is the Editor-in-Chief of the Peace & Conflict Monitor