Laura Bush touts aid successes on Africa tour

The first lady, on a four-nation trip, highlights public-private partnerships in Zambia Thursday.

When first lady Laura Bush tours the Zambian capital of Lusaka Thursday as part of a four-nation swing through Africa, she'll visit a unique US-funded project that taps a network of 12,000 Zambian HIV/AIDS volunteers to distribute bed nets designed to fight another major challenge: malaria.

But the $2.5 million program is also unique in another way – half of it is being funded by American corporations, including the likes of Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, and the National Basketball Association.

The companies are part of an alliance that calls itself the Global Business Coalition, which is working with the US government and a consortium of non-governmental organizations, ranging from big players like World Vision and Care International to local church groups throughout this largely rural and poor country of 11.5 million people.

Model for public-private partnership

Getting corporate titans and international development workers to speak the same language is often difficult. But all sides say the partnership might serve as a model for how public-private partnerships in development aid should be structured. In this case, the partnership leveraged private sector expertise and cash, and left the development work to workers with the right skills.

"These public-private partnerships sometimes can be messy, but there was incredible will to make this work," says Bruce Wilkinson, who heads Reaching HIV/AIDS Affected People with Integrated Development and Support (RAPIDS), the US-funded NGO working with the business coalition.

It's just the kind of program that the Bush administration is trying to promote as it focuses attention on the billions of aid dollars it is spending in Africa to combat disease.

The administration is also asking Congress to double its HIV/AIDS funding commitment abroad over the next five years to $30 billion.

"I think all of the programs we'll see that are supported by US taxpayers are a good example of both what Americans are really like," the first lady told reporters on the plane ride to Senegal, her first stop in a trip that took her to Mozambique Wednesday and will end Friday in Mali. In Mozambique Wednesday, Mrs. Bush announced $507 million in assistance from the US-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation to build roads and battle malaria. Public-private partnerships feature heavily on her Zambia agenda.

A merry-go-round that pumps water

Mrs. Bush will also christen a "Play Pump" at Regiment School in Lusaka Thursday. The device, essentially a merry-go-round that pumps water out of the ground as children play on it, is also part of a $60 million public-private venture.

Mr. Wilkinson argues that talking to firms in a language they can understand and telling them where they can add to the "value chain," is crucial.

"You show the corporate guys this is where you will actually add value," Wilkinson says, sitting in his Lusaka office. "Do not try to drag companies into something that takes them out of their core competency,"

Here, the value added was cash and bed nets. Companies were responsive in part because malaria is seen as an eminently solvable problem – and one that costs businesses in Africa money each year in terms of lost work hours.

After learning about the need for bed nets during a visit to Zambia last December, the business alliance persuaded nearly 20 companies to pony up a total of $1.25 million, and contacted the US government to coordinate a response. Manufacturer Vestergaard-Frandsen agreed to give a good price on the insecticide-treated nets.

Founded in 2001, the business coalition has focused primarily on encouraging companies to implement workplace policies on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, and on using private-sector expertise to bolster anti-disease efforts.

"This was a unique initiative by GBC. In general, we are not a fundraising organization," executive director John Tedstrom said via e-mail from New York .

The public-private model has limits, of course, as health-development work and big business remain two different worlds.

But that could change, Wilkinson says. "Too many times, dialogue has been limited between not-for-profits and for profit worlds," he says. "Those adversarial relationships don't make sense anymore."

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