Thursday, March 22, 2007

Faith groups can bring a lot to the campaign

The campaign in support of the Philippines has gained further support in Australia. A coalition of Australian church, medical specialist and breastfeeding organisations is urging transnational corporations to drop their attempts at overturning the Philippines’ governments baby food marketing regulations. International support is helping to generate national and international coverage of the issue. See:

It is great to see church groups in Australia amongst the supporters of the campaign. Faith groups have played and continue to play an important role in raising awareness of the baby food marketing scandal.

As well as raising awareness and supporting campaigns, faith organisations sometimes give financial support. Baby Milk Action receives a grant from the United Reformed Church for our work and, in the past, from the Methodist Relief and Development Fund.

As it says on the URC website:

---Quote begins
The Church and Society committee and the Commitment for Life sub-committee of the URC, both continue to monitor the situation and support the work of Baby Milk Action and the Inter-Agency Group on Breastmilk Monitoring. URC General Assembly passed a resolution in 1992 encouraging churches to boycott Nescafe and other Nestle products because of the way Nestle markets breast milk substitutes in the developing world.
---Quote ends

The Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring (IGBM) consists of 27 church, academic and development organisations and was set up after Nestlé lobbied the Church of England when its Synod was considering disinvesting from Nestlé. The Church of England suspended its support for the Nestlé boycott while conducting its own investigation independently of Baby Milk Action and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) through IGBM, which was convened for the purpose.

IGBM's investigation found ‘systematic’ violations by Nestlé and other companies. Though the report was accepted by the Synod in 1997, it accepted a proposal from the Church Commissioners to use its investment to try to exert pressure on Nestlé, rather than re-instate is support for the boycott. To date we have seen no success from this strategy and the Church of England is now quiet on the issue. This is unsurprising as Nestlé is notoriously immune to investor pressure. See:

The Methodist Church has long encouraged member churches to investigate the baby milk issue and take appropriate action. This was reiterated at its 2006 Conference, where text was adopted setting out the following points in response to various motions (known as ‘Memorials’) and a report from the Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics of Investment (JACEI):

---Quotes begin
1. "The Conference shares with the [Oxford] Circuit the substantial concerns regarding the promotion of breast milk substitutes..."

2. "JACEI acknowledges the continuing concern with regard to some aspects of Nestlé's interpretation of the International Code, the implementation of company guidelines and the transparency of the procedures for monitoring compliance. These concerns may cause some through conscience to maintain a consumer boycott of Nestlé products."

3. "The Joint Advisory Committee for Ethics in Investment (JACEI) has discussed with Nestlé ethical concerns across a range of issues.... there is scope to influence change through engagement...."

4. "Many would consider that these two strategies [the boycott and engagement] have complementary objectives."
---Quotes end

You can well imagine that Nestlé and those pushing its agenda misrepresent the position taken by the Conference, which sets Methodist Church policy.

While the Conference suggests the boycott and engagement are complementary strategies, Nestlé implies that the Church no longer has concerns about the company and sees no objection to investing. A statement to this effect was made on the Nestlé website. While this has since been removed – I believe at the request of the Methodist Church - this does not stop Nestlé repeating its misrepresentation of what happened elsewhere.

On investment the Conference acknowledged that the Central Finance Board (CFB) made its decisions independently, but said that a monitoring system should be established to evaluate Nestlé's ethical performance and a report made to Conference on the outcome of meetings "in the event of the CFB deciding to invest in Nestlé."

We understand the CFB has been meeting with Nestlé, but it has not accepted Baby Milk Action’s offer of a briefing on current concerns before doing so or our views on any claims Nestlé may have made.

Such divisions within organisations are exploited by Nestlé and have wider repercussions. I understand that the misrepresentation of the Methodist Church position was a key factor in persuading the Christian Socialist Movement to accept Nestlé funding for an event at the Labour Party Conference last year, where Nestlé was given a platform to speak of its action on child slavery. We had to kick up a bit of a stink about this to ensure that Nestlé’s abuse of child rights through its aggressive baby food marketing was remembered, while also pointing out that Nestlé is subject to legal action in the US for failing to act on child slavery in its cocoa supply chain. See:

So Nestlé’s strategy is to exploit whatever cracks it can find in the alliance of those campaigning to protect infant health. Those within organisations who are responsible for finances are often the weak point. Any shift in position, or even ambiguous words, are used as a lever to try to break off more support. As ever, it is necessary to look beyond the surface of Nestlé’s claims to see what lies behind. For full documentation on the Methodist Church position and investigation see:

The Chair of the Committee convened by the Methodist Church Central Finance Board to investigate concluded by saying: “this was a complex and difficult issue… highly technical… it would be possible to continue the discussion ad nauseam… the Committee did not have the resources to do so, nor was it desirable for it to devote its attention exclusively to the subject of infant formula to the exclusion of other ethical issues…”

Which shows the danger of an organisation conducting an investigation without the necessary technical expertise or resources. Our advice to those in this position is to support our call for an independent, expert tribunal. Nestlé is so far refusing to even set out its terms and conditions. See:

Church and other faith groups are essential partners in defending infant health and mothers’ rights. We are very grateful for the continued support we receive, both officially and from individual churches and church members.

Faith organisations are, of course, also welcome to support our campaings, such as that in solidarity with the Philippines, to endorse the Nestlé boycott and to help us financially.

We are happy to come along and debate with Nestlé at faith organisations, as one church tried to arrange during Fairtrade Fortnight. While we accepted, Nestlé refused, having lost a series of debates in recent years. But keep on asking, Nestlé should not be allowed to hide from its appalling record.

Those wishing to bring the issue into their meetings themselves can count on Baby Milk Action for support. We can provide leaflets, advice on articles for newsletters and draft presentations (which are referenced and legally bomb proof). There are plenty of resources on the Baby Milk Action website and feel free to contact us for help.

No comments: