Nestlé and the United Nations:
Partnership or Penetration?
Nestlé -- one of the world's largest transnational corporations -- is the long-time target of an international boycott campaign resulting from its unethical marketing of infant foods. Consequently, the member groups of IBFAN (International Baby Food Action Network) which are active participants in the Nestlé Boycott are disturbed about Nestlé's co-sponsorship and hosting of a United Nations workshop on women and sustainable development in November last year.
The UN workshop, entitled "Mechanisms of Support to Women's Participation in Sustainable Development", took place from 5-7 November 1997 at Nestlé's International Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland. Nestlé fully dominated the workshop -- paying for all meals and lodging plus air fares for some participants; providing name tags with the Nestlé logo; presenting the company's research and development activities; organizing a visit to the Nestlé Research Centre; and hosting a reception.
Overall, the workshop had the feel of an internal Nestlé meeting with token UN sponsorship. Although the mining corporation Glencort was an official co-sponsor, this company was far less prominent than Nestlé. The eight Nestlé observers present, fortified by several others with close ties to the company, outnumbered the six UN officials. The workshop -- with 40 participants, half of which were NGOs from developing countries -- was closed to the public, and one UN-accredited journalist was denied access to the proceedings.
Since United Nations activities carried out within the framework of its mandate must be paid from the organization's own funds, and possible conflicts of interest must be avoided at all times, one wonders why the UN workshop was not held at Geneva's Palais des Nations, one of the most prestigious and best-equipped conference centres in the world. When NGOs heard that the event would be both hosted and sponsored by Nestlé, they began to ask questions.
The workshop's stated objective was "to provide a forum to identify and promote viable mechanisms for private sector support of women's participation in sustainable development". The aide-memoire from the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs was subtitled "Exploring Strategies for Cooperative Partnerships in Environmentally Sustainable Development", and requested that NGOs fund participants from the South -- "women involved in promoting small-scale entrepreneurial activities at the grassroots level in developing countries".
Upon hearing about the workshop, the NGO Working Group on Women for the ECE Region expressed its doubts about the role of baby food and mining companies in building environmentally sustainable development, warning against the probable commercial agenda of the co-sponsors. Additionally, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) identified a host of problems attached to Nestlé's co-sponsorship. IBFAN has many years of experience in monitoring the compliance of the baby food industry with the 1981 International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The International Code is the UN's code for the protection and promotion of breastfeeding in the face of inappropriate marketing practices. The promotion of baby milks and infant foods is not only damaging to women's health, but also causes untold misery due to artificial feeding related sicknesses and death -- also known as the bottle-baby syndrome.
IBFAN has been investigating the marketing practices of the baby food industry over the past 17 years, and has continuously documented its sustained and wilful violations of the International Code. Nestlé has emerged as the most systematic corporate offender in terms of non-compliance with the Code and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions. Since Nestlé holds the lion's share of the market, its irresponsible marketing practices harm more babies and mothers worldwide than those of any other company.
Yet despite protest letters to the UN, it proved impossible to prevent Nestlé's involvement in the workshop. IBFAN later expressed its concern in writing to Dr. Nitin Desai, UN Under-Secretary for Social and Economic Affairs, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. In response, Dr. Desai requested "practical inputs and insights on guidelines and criteria" as the UN proceeds "along this largely uncharted path". At present, IBFAN is working to provide just these insights.
Opposing the Infant Formula Industry
Relations between the infant formula industry and UN institutions are not uniformly rosy. UNICEF, for example, implements a de facto boycott of corporations not respecting the World Health Assembly Code. Following an October 1997 meeting with Nestlé, the Executive Director of UNICEF sent a letter to the company stating that differences of opinion "continue to raise a barrier to the establishment of any kind of working relationship between UNICEF and Nestlé".
The 1997 NGO report Cracking the Code provides extensive evidence of continued violations of the World Health Assembly code on marketing of breastmilk substitutes in countries like Bangladesh, Poland, Thailand and South Africa. The baby food industry -- organized in the Association of Infant Food Manufacturers (IFM) -- has rejected the report as "inaccurate". The IFM denies the responsibility as set out in the Code for industry to monitor its own practices, but unequivocally insists that Code implementation is a question of national legislation in the country under question. Yet hypocritically, the IFM -- and Nestlé in particular -- is presently attempting to undermine national legislation for the implementation of the Code in Uganda, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. In an ongoing court case in India, Nestlé has even challenged the constitutionality of the national law.
IBFAN is seeking allies in our attempts to keep the United Nations free of corporate dominance. We feel that it is preferable to swim against the tide and risk drowning than to go with the corporate flow and lose our principles. We welcome insight and practical ideas from other NGOs about how to bring effective pressure to bear upon the UN system.
For more information, contact:
IBFAN c/o GIFA (Geneva Infant Feeding Association) P.O. Box 157, 1211 Geneva 19, Switzerland