JWANENG AND GABORONE, BOTSWANA — All George Gailey wanted to do was eke out a living in this dusty frontier bushtown, constructing three-bedroom bungalows for mineworkers who toil in one of the world's biggest diamond mines.
But before Mr. Gailey's construction firm could clear one piece of land, pour one ounce of concrete, or bring in a single pile of bricks, he had to have a robust HIV/AIDS program for his 168 workers.
In a country with one of the world's highest HIV infection rates, that's what mine owner Debswana requires of all its contractors and suppliers. At first, Gailey was skeptical. But after losing 10 workers to AIDS, he's now fully on board.
That puts him at the forefront of a growing movement by Botswana's small and midsized companies to tackle AIDS - an effort that's injecting fresh business-minded practicality into the often contentious global AIDS fight. The effort is one issue on the front burner in Washington today as the US Senate looks at ways Botswana's comprehensive anti-AIDS campaign can provide guidance for other African nations.
"In Botswana, as in many societies, you see the private sector leading the way," says Brad Ryder of the Botswana-based African Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Partnership (ACHAP). "And what business does trickles down to government, eventually."
For Gailey, the impetus started with Debswana three years ago. "We're not allowed to put one shovel in the ground until we show them our AIDS policy," he says. And it can't be some half-baked scheme. He has, among other things, condom dispensers in his bathrooms, a full-time AIDS coordinator, regular AIDS seminars, and nondiscrimination policies. Debswana does monthly audits and requires Gailey's attendance at weekly meetings where AIDS is often discussed.
In 2000, Debswana, a joint venture between Botswana's government and diamond giant DeBeers, started requiring contractors to have policies as part of its expanding - and much-heralded - anti-AIDS efforts. The company says it doesn't care what the programs specifically look like.
"Our attitude is, have a policy in place, but just make sure it works for you," says Tsetsele Fantan, formerly Debswana's director of HIV/AIDS impact management, who recently took a job with ACHAP and is in Washington today discussing Botswana's AIDS programs.
At first, many firms only complied to get Debswana's lucrative contracts. But now they see the value - and are making their subcontractors do the same.
Among Jwaneng's 16,000 residents, that means 2,000 extra people are hearing anti-AIDS messages. Getting smaller businesses on board nationally could have a big impact in this country of 1.7 million people, where more than one-third are estimated to be HIV-positive. Debswana, for instance, employs only about 6,300 people. But the country's small and medium-sized businesses have more than 77,000 employees.
ACHAP - an alliance between Botswana's government, drug giant Merck & Co., and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - just gave $400,000 to jump-start the business anti-AIDS effort. It involves small firms banding together to develop best practices for fighting AIDS.
Donald de Korte, project director for ACHAP, says that while requiring businesses to have AIDS programs in place may be a good idea, they often don't have the money to implement them. That's where ACHAP comes in.
"Small businesses have small resources ... and may feel discriminated against [by Debswana]," he says. "We are currently developing [AIDS program] toolkits for these businesses." Those toolkits include diagnosis, counseling, and free drugs.
Gailey sees absenteeism and lethargic employees sapping productivity and threatening profits. Every day he has employees asking for time off to attend funerals, which can last two weeks in this traditional society. Sometimes they never come back as they have to take care of a dead relative's children or cattle.
While government and nonprofit efforts can get bogged down in knotty debates - such as whether to advocate condoms or sexual abstinence - businesses tend to try anything. At a recent two-hour session for Gailey employees, an instructor held up a broomstick to demonstrate condom use, which sparked titters in a society where sex is rarely discussed in public. At another session, the speaker discussed the practical reasons why religion and traditional values dictate monogamy. There's evidence the efforts are working.
About 300 condoms a week are flying out of Gailey Construction's bathrooms. Also, the infection rate among contractor employees in Jwaneng dropped from 24 percent in 2001 to 19 percent in 2003 - although it's hard to isolate corporate impact amid government and nonprofit efforts.
The message, though, is getting through. "They tell us lots of things - condomize, condomize - and be faithful," says Michael Banungi, a construction worker in his royal blue jumpsuit.
Yet there's still much to do. Some men in town, for instance, believe that if they don't have sex regularly, their blood will harden and they'll die. Across Botswana - and in most of Africa - there's also a huge stigma about admitting being HIV positive. Those who do so are shunned - or worse. "They don't treat you like a human being," says Osaitse Bogaco a diminutive worker, speaking in hushed tones at a building site.
None of Gailey's workers has disclosed their HIV status. That leaves him guessing about employee health. Driving through this town - where the landscape looks like an Arizona desert - he speaks candidly about juggling bottom-line needs with his nondiscrimination policy. "You don't want someone with AIDS to be a driver on long-haul routes," he says. Fatigue can hit, and they'll crash the truck. So his foremen quietly transfer suspected HIV-positive workers off longer routes, which are coveted because they generate overtime pay.
The practice exposes the limits of relying on business in the AIDS fight, say critics, as their first priority is to provide services and make money, not solve social ills.
Still, business efforts are crucial, says Major Mabalani of Majoboge Construction, another Jwaneng contractor. "If we don't all work hard" fighting AIDS, he says, "nobody will escape."