Wanted: humanitarians with a conscience
- About the small steps from UNICEF to NESTLE, from PEPSICO to WHO
Within the humanitarian world, there has always been a debate about the professional profile of development or aid workers. While the world often has an image of aidworkers resembling "the long-haired hippie singing 'We are the world' with a bunch of black kids on our knees, wearing hand-knitted goat-wool socks", many of us agree that the profile of a humanitarian should be different. Rather than "Good Intentions-only" we often look for "professionals", people who can bring an aid organisation to a operational level comparable to the commercial sector.
But somewhere there is a trade-off. We can not only hire shark-like business people, "to cut our overhead and bring more aid for less money", as often this would conflict with our humanitarian mandate. Simple example: We might buy those schoolbooks at 50% of the price, but those are made in sweat shops.
Understand the dilemma?
So, the ideal profile of a humanitarian, in my book, is a "professional with a conscience".
While my ideals stand, I can only validate them up to a certain point. Beyond that, "humanitarian executives" will, more often than not, be career politicians or even mere business people...
According to an interesting article in India Today, quoted below, Ann Veneman -the ex-chief of UNICEF- might be one of those. Switching from the UN agency mandated for child nutrition, promoting breast feeding, to joining the board of Nestle.
Nestle being the very same company which has been heavily critized for its low-faith/low-ethics campaigns luring women in the developing countries into to powder milk for babies... Nestle is the very same company which has been accused by UNICEF of using commercial methods below WHO standards.
As I said, an interesting article:
The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) has just released a glossy report on the state of the world's children. Senior officials of the UN body made the right noises about children, the need to improve their nutritional status and so on, at media dos in several important capitals across the globe.
At a similar occasion a couple of years ago, Ann Veneman - who was Executive Director of the agency till April 2010 - had articulated Unicef's position on how exclusive breastfeeding for toddlers is critical to combat hunger and promote child survival. Post-retirement the UN official has undergone a change of mind.
She will now be on the board of a company which has been accused of subverting efforts to promote breastfeeding by flouting laws in order to market its formula foods. Yes, Veneman is joining the Board of Directors of Switzerland-based food giant - Nestle.
Veneman's transition from advocating nutrition and health to the board room of a multinational food company has been rather smooth, but has shocked health advocates all over.
It is nothing short of a coup for the food industry which is increasingly under attack for promoting unhealthy snacking and eating habits among children.
Veneman has had an 'illustrious' past.
In 2005, when she was appointed to the top post in Unicef, not everyone was comfortable because of her past connections with agrobusiness as secretary of agriculture in the Bush Administration.
"Veneman's promotion by the Bush Administration - Unicef is traditionally headed by an American - was greeted with concerns by some grassroots activists because of her good relations with big business and her limited experience in child welfare issues", medical journal The Lancet had noted in 2006.
While at the UN body, Veneman consciously emphasised the use of ready-to-use foods as a strategy to counter malnutrition.
As per her own admission made a few months before her term ended, " Unicef has significantly contributed to accelerating the use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods for treatment of acute malnutrition, with Unicef purchases of the product increasing from 100 metric tons in 2003 to over 11,000 metric tons in 2008". Veneman's appointment is part of the trend which has seen junk food makers trying to position themselves as marketers of healthy and nutritious foods.
A few years back PepsiCo appointed Derek Yach, former Executive Director of non- communicable diseases at the World Health Organisation (WHO), as its head of health and nutrition policies.
Yach frequently writes or coauthors review articles and comments in medical journals, pushing the industry point of view.
Such articles are then cited to influence policy makers.
PepsiCo got the head of cardiovascular diseases at Centre for Disease Control (CDC) - a US government arm - to head its own division on heart health. By appointing people connected with top health bodies, these companies want to portray themselves as part of the solution and not problem, and also want to influence policy making in health and nutrition.
At this rate, the day is not far off when junk food makers will position themselves as 'health and nutrition research' outfits and start dictating national health policies. (Source)
And there is loads more we can say about the positioning of junk food and junk drinks companies within the humanitarian organisations... Right? Right?
H/T to I.T. having the courage to tweet this link...
Cartoon courtesy Polyp.org and Speechless - The Book