The UN Secretary General, Ban KI-moon, is today announcing a worldwide campaign to save the lives of 16 million mothers and children over the next five years and a fund of US$40 billion to help achieve this goal. See The Guardian.
This is wonderful news - and we should perhaps not be too surprised to find that Nestlé, a company with a long record of abusing women and child rights, is trying to muscle in on the initiative to try to distract attention from its on-going aggressive marketing of baby milks in breach of international standards and other much-criticised practices.
Far too many mothers and children die from preventable causes. While we welcome the new United Nations initiative, we should also remember that there are far cheaper, but politically more difficult, steps that can be taken to reduce unnecessary child deaths: implementing and enforcing existing measures adopted by the United Nations. Over 140,000 people have signed a rolling petition calling for policy makers to take action to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, with over 3,000 addressing a specific message to the Secretary General over the last three days. See the ONE MILLION CAMPAIGN.
In the area of infant feeding, the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes is helping to save lives in many countries, but many more have yet to implement it and the subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly. These international minimum standards aim to protect breastfeeding and ensure breastmilk substitutes are used safely when necessary and companies are called on to abide by them independently of government action, but do not do so.
Worse still, the United Nations Global Compact, a voluntary initiative intended to improve the behaviour of transnational corporations, has been found to be complicit in working with companies such as Nestlé to allow violations of the Code and Resolutions to continue: it accepts Nestlé funding to promote the initiative and posts on its website Nestlé's PR materials claiming the company abides by the Code and Resolution, but refuses to investigate reports of egregious violations of the Global Compact Principles registered under the initiatives Integrity Measures. There are also concerns that corporations will be using the UN Secretary General's new initiative as a way to improve their images, while continuing to abuse human rights.
A few weeks ago, the Secretary General's Office worked in 'collaboration' (to use the word in a report on the World Health Organisation site) with the International Business Leaders Forum at 'a special meeting to explore ways the private sector can contribute to supporting the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health'. According to the report, 'Best practices from a range of industry sectors and companies were showcased', with Nestlé one of the companies there with something to show and tell - though not, presumably, it's latest baby milk strategy of claiming its breastmilk substitutes 'protect' babies when it knows babies who are not breastfed are more likely to become sick and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die.
The report concludes: 'A number of companies are already looking seriously at how they might respond to the Global Strategy, and identify commitments, which will be announced to the public during the UN Millennium Develop Goals (MDG) Summit on 22 September 2010 in New York and in the months to come.'
However, when Baby Milk Action contacted the Secretary General's Office, we were informed that only governments are involved in the Global Strategy launch. Is the Secretary General wary of appearing publicly too close to Nestlé, one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet over its pushing of baby milk in breach of international marketing standards adopted by the World Health Assembly, part of the UN system?
The Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health follows on the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, which has proved to be an invaluable tool for improving breastfeeding rates, that could prevent 1.3 million under-5 deaths in the 42 countries where most under-5 deaths occur. A World Health Organisation (WHO)/Lancet study found that improving breastfeeding rates could save more lives than universal provision of safe water, adequate sanitation and childhood vaccines. This strategy and the adoption of the International Code and Resolutions is the UN at its best: bringing policy makers together from around the world to coordinate action that helps to save lives.
In turning these initiatives into reality, people on the ground have come up against the baby food industry. As industry analysts Euromonitor state in their report on the state of the baby food industry in 2008: “The industry is fighting a rearguard action against regulation on a country-by-country basis."
Part of Nestlé's strategy is to try to 'partner' with the United Nations. Earlier this year, Nestlé was a patron sponsor of a UN Global Compact event in New York, despite Baby Milk Action and other Nestlé Critics having registered an official complaint with the UN Global Compact Office over Nestlé's egregious violations of the Global Compact Principles and its bringing the initiative into disrepute. The Global Compact Office refused to investigate the case, citing lack of resources or mandate. In a telling comment, it stated:
"Of course, abuses of the 10 Principles do occur; however we believe that such abuses only indicate that it is important for the company to remain in the Compact and learn from its mistakes."
In my view, the UN Global Compact is worse than useless because it provides public relations cover to Nestlé and other companies violating human rights by posting their reports and taking part in joint events, while refusing to investigate complaints.
If the Secretary General is being courted by Nestlé and others who want to be seen as playing a part in the new Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health - and Bill Gates is cited as a speaker by the Guardian - then what hope is there for poorly resourced citizens' groups such as Baby Milk Action and our partners having our legitimate concerns addressed?
I'll sum up with a quote that can be used by journalists, citing Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator, Baby Milk Action:
"In our complaint to the UN Global Compact Office, we focused in on Nestlé latest global marketing strategy where it is claiming its baby milk 'protects' babies and is 'the new "Gold Standard" in infant nutrition'. Nestlé also refuses to provide information on known risks of formula feeding to parents who use its products and the simple steps that can reduce these risks. As Nestlé knows, babies fed on breastmilk substitutes are more likely to become ill than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die. Such marketing strategies are not only clear violations of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, Nestlé has been told they violate specific national regulations and has been emailed by thousands of people calling on it to immediately stop these practices. Nestlé continues to defend them. While Nestlé continues to put its own profits before the health and well-being of babies, the UN should not only be investigating it for violating the Code and the Global Compact Principles, it should be closing the door on executives who want to be seen as partners. It is welcome that the new Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health stresses the importance of breastfeeding, but we should remember that promotion and support of breastfeeding and accurate, independent information is undermined if protection is not also put in place."
For images of Nestlé's latest promotions and a quick form for emailing Nestlé, see: