MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling asks why "Save the Children" isn't doing just that?

Published by MAC on 2010-12-21
Source: Nostromo Research, New York Times

Many of us would deplore attempts by extractive companies to "buy off" opposition, by offering jobs to their critics, sponsoring self-serving pieces of academic research, or throwing money at their antagonists.

There's obviously a difference between a civil society organisation itself soliciting a corporate grant, and facing the dilemma of whether to accept a dubious donation that's simply landed in its lap.

However, Save the Children - one of the world's biggest development charities - seems oblivious to such moral questions.

According to an article in the New York Times last week, the organisation is now eagerly clambering into bed with Coca Cola.

It's difficult to imagine a more inappropriate relationship between a body claiming to save young peoples' lives and a firm that's manifestly been poisoning young peoples' health for generations.

Dirty money

Save the Children (formerly SCF) has been in partnership with Coke since 1991 and received US$400,000 from the corporation so far.

This early deal probably raised some eyebrows at the time. Doubtless SC defended it by arguing that, where the lives of suffering children are concerned, no gift can be too tainted.

Save the Children went on to receive US$5 million from PepsiCo in early 2009 to further its work in India and Bangladesh. Again, we're not aware that this stirred up any hullabaloo.

Perhaps Pepsi greenbacks are considered more acceptable than dirtier dosh from its rival?

By this time, in any case - and strapped for government funding - several major NGOs had bought the "lesser evil" argument; and, like WWF, were accepting funds directly from corporations such as Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Lafarge.

Soda fountains

Now, however, Save the Children has gone one step beyond the pale. It's seeking millions of dollars more from Coke, just as it abandons a campaign to curb childhood obesity in the US by taxing the sweeteners used in the company's products- likewise those of PepsiCo.

What the heck does one of the most venerated UK-registered charities think it's doing, supping (almost literally) with these two "food" giants?

Take a cursory glance at Coca Cola's record of "corporate social responsibility".

It's been indicted for supporting all manner of egregious activity. For example, a number of NGOs accuse it of poisoning and depleting community water supplies in India.

Civil society organisations have also long condemned its complicity in human rights abuses in Colombia. See: Colombia's Permanent Peoples 'Tribunal condemns mining companies

And there's been much other criticism besides.

Save the Children's "anti soda" campaign was started before the charity obtained funding from Pepsico and (so it says) the company didn't try to spike it.

But then, it didn't need to: PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have already spent over $16 million to overturn the soda-tax initiative. Their shareholders would expect nothing less.

One might still hope the membership of Save the Children would want for something different.

It's difficult to believe they're all happy that their contributions to vital development aid are about to be eked-out with profits made by a global bastion of crippling capitalism and rampant free trade.

Mining and the money

By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with mining?

Actually, quite a lot.

In September 2005, SC joined the call for an "International Financial Reporting Standard for the extractive industries" in which it stated that:

"...[C]ountry-by-country reporting on commercial performance, taxes and other benefits paid to governments, and reserves is essential information for making useful decisions about companies engaged in the extractive sector.

"This information is vital to shareholders and other stakeholders, including governments and citizens who have an interest in this important industry" See:.

(Turned around - and with "ethical performance" added - might such an exercise be vital in determining the standards adopted by public charities when accepting corporate funds?).

Moreover, one of Save the Children's key objectives is to combat the use of child labour, including that in many small-scale quarries and pits around the world, classified as "hazardous industries".

Summarising its Indian programme, the charity notes: "In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, we're supporting bridging courses and alternative education centres for children working in hazardous industries. In the past year, 5,600 children gained a basic education, and 2,700 subsequently moved into mainstream schools".

Good work , surely? But then, many educational institutions around the world have already adopted a policy of "boycotting Coke" - a reality Save the Children appears blatantly to ignore.

Also, in July 2010, the Kerala state government promised to hasten formation of a Tribunal which could award US$48 million in compensation from Coca Cola. This followed deliberations of an official committee which held the company responsible for pollution and water depletion at its Plachimada bottling plant in 2004.

At least the children in this part of southern India may be spared future ill-health, as  dished out to them by the world's most infamous beverages' firm.

But - thanks in part to Save the Children's abnegation of its own first principles - the kids of America won't be so lucky.

A little bit of history

Not that any of this should come as a surprise. 

Save the Children has long had an ambivalent relationship with corporate power - one that reaches quite deep into the mining sector, and specifically with Rio Tinto.

As reported by Down To Earth (the UK campaign for ecological Justice in Indonesia) in July 1998:

"[Rio Tinto] is making strenuous efforts to improve its image with UK-based NGOs. The London office of Rio Tinto has organised two meetings with selected NGOs including OXFAM, Save the Children [SCF] and Amnesty International to discuss its corporate social and environmental policy.

"The company's senior management were reported to have been taken aback by the critical comments received. The campaigning group Partizans, which has exposed Rio Tinto's misdeeds world-wide over the last 20 years, was not invited". [Down To Earth newsletter, July 1998].

"Critical comments" from Save the Children? Yes, for at that time, SCF was keen that Rio Tinto improve its working standards around the globe. Nor is there any suggestion that these meetings were designed to open the way for dispensing of corporate funding.

However, a large number of people - not least in Partizans and some Indigenous Peoples organisations associated with the UK group - found these tete-a-tete's between Save the Children, Oxfam and Amnesty and Rio Tinto fundamentally objectionable.

None of the three charities had divulged beforehand that these meetings were being held, let alone insisted that community representatives be present (if they had wanted to be).

(As a result of the minor furore that followed, Oxfam UK hosted a "roundtable", intended to reach an accommodation between organisations willing to engage with mining companies, and those that weren't.

However no common ground emerged, except for a weak agreement that those who favoured corporate "engagement" would always inform in advance those who didn't, if they intended to attend future corporate meetings. Even this compromise was never implemented).

Marketing Salvation?

There's no evidence that Save the Children has joined in any further (at least formal) discourse with Rio Tinto, or any other mining company.

At its home base of the UK, anything approaching a bid by SCF for such funding would  create uproar - not least, one would hope, from Oxfam and Amnesty whose approach to corporate sponsorship has always been at odds with that of its fellow international NGO.

Nonetheless, there's more to such linkages than money passing over the desk, bound up with how a charitable enterprise sees its role in the modern world and in implementing the mandate set by its members.

It's sobering to realise the recently-appointed head of Save the Children's international programme was herself "weaned" by Rio Tinto - and she's proud of the fact.

Jasmine Whitbread worked with the mining company's marketing department, later for its Public Relations and Sales between 1986 and 1988, before moving on to a spell at Thomson Financial (itself a publisher of much mining-related data).

When reflecting on this period of her life in an interview with Management Today  (31 March 2010) Ms Whitbread  couldn't "think of a thing I learnt about being a manager and leader that isn't relevant to what I do here [at Save the Children International]".

Except, it would appear (to quote the words of "Olaf, glad and big" in E.E. Cummins' eponymous poem) that "there is some s... i will not eat".

Or - in this particular case - some poison that Ms Whitbread should certainly think twice before drinking?

Article updated on 28 February 2011 - According to our colleagues at the San Fransico-based India Resource Center, the government of Kerala has legislated to allow for compensation claims for damage by the company which potentially could amount to nearly US$50 million.

Although the announcement doesn't relate to mining, it does address two issues of concern: successful legal actions by communities against unacceptable exploitation of their resources; and the highly questionable - and growing - readiness of development NGOs to accept support from bad corporate actors.

[London Calling is published by Nostromo Research. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of any other party, including the editors of the MAC website. Reproduction is welcomed, with full acknowledgment to Nostromo Research as the source].

Save the Children Breaks With Soda Tax Effort

By William Neuman

New York Times

14 December 2010

Over the last year, Save the Children emerged as a leader in the push to tax sweetened soft drinks as a way to combat childhood obesity. The nonprofit group supported soda tax campaigns in Mississippi, New Mexico, Washington State, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia.

At the same time, executives at Save the Children were seeking a major grant from Coca-Cola to help finance the health and education programs that the charity conducts here and abroad, including its work on childhood obesity.

The talks with Coke are still going on. But the soda tax work has been stopped. In October, Save the Children surprised activists around the country with an e-mail message announcing that it would no longer support efforts to tax soft drinks.

In interviews this month, Carolyn Miles, chief operating officer of Save the Children, said there was no connection between the group's about-face on soda taxes and the discussions with Coke. A $5 million grant from PepsiCo also had no influence on the decision, she said. Both companies fiercely oppose soda taxes.

Ms. Miles said that after Save the Children took a prominent role in several soda tax campaigns, executives reviewed the issue and decided it was too controversial to continue.

"We looked at it and said, ‘Is this something we should be out there doing and does this fit with the way that Save the Children works?' " she said. "And the answer was no."

Ms. Miles said the talks with Coke were continuing and the grant under discussion was significantly larger than past donations from the soft drink giant. Coke has given the group about $400,000 since 1991, according to a company spokeswoman.

Save the Children has received much more money from Pepsi through the PepsiCo Foundation, which it has designated as a "corporate partner" in recognition of the $5 million grant for work in India and Bangladesh. PepsiCo awarded the grant in early 2009, before the charity began its soda tax advocacy.

Representatives of both Coca-Cola and Pepsi said they had not asked the charity to alter its position on soda taxes.

But soda tax advocates say that soft drink makers are flexing their muscles in opposition to soda taxes. In Washington State, the American Beverage Association, a trade group that includes Coke and Pepsi, spent $16.5 million to win passage of a November ballot initiative that overturned a small tax on soft drinks enacted by the legislature to help plug a budget gap. The beverage association outspent supporters of the tax by more than 40 to 1, and the tax was repealed.

Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children's Alliance, an advocacy group in Seattle, said Save the Children's decision to abandon the issue was "a significant loss, especially at a time when the American Beverage Association has just shown that their resources are unlimited." The alliance got $25,000 from Save the Children to help advocate for a soda tax.

Kelly D. Brownell, a soda tax advocate and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said that many food and beverage companies made donations to nonprofit groups fighting hunger but it was less common for them to finance work to address obesity.

"It would be a shame if there were a quid pro quo and the groups felt pressure to oppose something like a soda tax," Mr. Brownell said.

Public debate about soda taxes has intensified over the last year. Proponents say that if the tax were large enough, perhaps a penny an ounce or more, it could reduce consumption of sugary beverages, which are high in calories and can contribute to obesity. In addition, money raised by the tax could be spent on public health efforts to fight obesity.

The soda companies argue that it is unfair to blame their products for the obesity epidemic, which has complex causes. They say that policies should be focused instead on getting people to exercise more.

So far, tax proposals have gotten little traction. Last year, federal lawmakers considered a soft drink tax to help pay for health care reform, but that idea was dropped. Governors, state lawmakers and mayors have proposed taxes but made little headway.

Save the Children's involvement in the issue began in late 2009, when it got a $3.5 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fight childhood obesity through a program it called the Campaign for Healthy Kids. Save the Children initially financed the work of local groups, some of which focused on improving school lunches and requiring health education in schools. But local activists in Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington State used the grants to push for a soda tax.

When politicians in Philadelphia and Washington proposed soda taxes this year, the Campaign for Healthy Kids got more directly involved, paying for lobbyists and polling. "We really took the lead on those and were publicly identified with those," said Andrew Hysell, an associate vice president for Save the Children and the director of the obesity campaign.

None of the soda tax measures supported by Save the Children passed, although in Washington, the city council removed a sales tax exemption for carbonated beverages.

Save the Children's prominent role in Philadelphia and Washington led top executives of the charity to review the work. Ms. Miles said they concluded the advocacy was not part of the charity's mission.

"We made a decision that it was an issue that was controversial among our constituents and really was not core to the work we're doing in the U.S.," Ms. Miles said. She said that while the charity's constituents included corporate donors, concerns over fund-raising were not involved in the decision.

Mr. Hysell informed soda tax advocates of the change in October and the Campaign for Healthy Kids removed declarations of support for soda taxes from its Web site.

Officials of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who had encouraged Save the Children to advocate for soda taxes, are disappointed.

"They were obviously some of the strongest out there working on the issue, and we had such high hopes," said Dwayne Proctor, team director for childhood obesity at the foundation. He said the two groups would continue to work together on other aspects of the obesity fight.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 15, 2010, on page B1 of the New York edition.

State Passes Law Allowing Compensation from Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola Legally Bound to Follow Orders of Tribunal on CompensationFor Immediate Release

24 February 2011

New Delhi: In an unprecedented move, the state legislature of Kerala in India passed legislation today allowing individuals negatively affected by Coca-Cola's bottling operations in Plachimada to seek compensation from the company.

The legislation sets up a tribunal - a three-member body - that has the powers to adjudicate on matters related to claims of compensation as a result of Coca-Cola's reckless operations in Plachimada.

The tribunal has also been granted additional legal authority, including the power to summons individuals and documents, as well as seek and examine witnesses.

The adoption of the legislation by the Kerala state legislature legally binds Coca-Cola to follow the directives of the tribunal.

The legislation is based on the report and recommendations of a High Power Committee which released a report on March 22, 2010 holding Coca-Cola responsible for causing pollution and water depletion in Plachimada in the state of Kerala in south India.

Using the "polluter pays principle," the High Power Committee had recommended that Coca-Cola be held liable for Indian Rupees 216 crore (US$ 48 million) for damages caused as a result of the company's bottling operations in Plachimada.

In its report, the High Power Committee said that, "The Committee thus has compelling evidence to conclude that the HCBPL has caused serious depletion of the water resources of Plachimada, and has severely contaminated the water and soil." HCBPL is the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, a subsidiary of Atlanta based Coca-Cola Company.

"The Committee has come to the conclusion that the Company is responsible for these damages and it is obligatory that they pay the compensation to the affected people for the agricultural losses, health problems, loss of wages, loss of educational opportunities, and the pollution caused to the water resources," added the report.

"This is a landmark moment for the people of Kerala and India," said R. Ajayan of the Plachimada Solidarity Committee which has been actively involved in the campaign since its inception. "The passage of the bill means that people's will in Kerala has now become law of the land," said R. Ajayan.

Community leaders in Plachimada have vowed to continue the campaign. Activists are demanding that the state government also charge Coca-Cola with criminal offenses because of the laws the company has violated.

Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Plachimada has been shut down since March 2004 as a result of the community-led campaign which accused Coca-Cola of exacerbating water shortages in the area and pollution.

The campaign against Coca-Cola in Plachimada has also enjoyed tremendous international support, with colleges and universities in the US, UK, Canada and Norway taking action against Coca-Cola. Two other campaigns - in Kala Dera in Rajasthan and Mehdiganj in Uttar Pradesh - are also seeking closure of the local Coca-Cola bottling plant.

"This is a massive victory for the community of Plachimada and their supporters who have campaigned successfully all the way from the community to the state legislature, and that too against a global multinational corporation. This should serve as a powerful reminder to corporations across India that there are severe repercussions for operating recklessly," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaigning group.

For more information, visit

R. Ajayan, Plachimada Solidarity Committee +91 98471 42513
C. R. Bijoy, People's Union for Civil Liberties +91 98431 72584
Amit Srivastava, India Resource Center +1 415 336 7584 (US) +91 98103 46161 (India)

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