In the 1970s, the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act marked the beginning of the end to corporations shirking responsibility for unsavoury/illegal practices carried out by their suppliers/partners. Since then it has become generally accepted that companies are responsible for the impact of their business activities, including those outsourced to third parties. Thank God we got that one sorted. (Roll film on BP-oil spill debacle.)

Fast forward to sub-Saharan Africa, anno 2010. HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are the perennial chart-toppers on the region’s mortality tables. Transport plays an important role in all three. So responsible (and/or risk averse) supply chain operators are naturally going to include transporters in their HIV prevention and management programmes, right? Right? Hello?

According to a 2006 report from the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Booz & Co. transport was at the very bottom of industry responses to HIV/AIDS. A 2010 GBC/Booz study on the Oil and Gas industry found that “the sub-contractor community remains the most poorly served in terms of disease prevention and management programs, yet it is this community that is the most at risk.”

What gives? “They just don’t care,” quips the cynic. But that dog don’t hunt. Just look at Heineken’s ground-breaking HIV management programme or Chevron’s unparalleled corporate commitment to the Global Fund. Yes, many had a slow start, and, yes, some still aren’t even out of the gate yet, but big business has responded to HIV (and other health issues).

But look at how they have responded. By focusing on what they can control, and ignoring the rest. Big businesses are control freaks; control (standardization, scaling) is the secret of their success. But how do you control the behaviour and health of your supply chain when it is largely made up of people working for other companies?

“Are you saying businesses have no control over their supply chains?” I hear you ask. No, on the contrary. They have a lot of control over their supply chains. They impose it through a tried and true mechanism: the contract. Anyone who has ever contracted for a major corporation will know that the sharp end of quality control is actually a corporate lawyer’s pen.

Back to HIV. So far most of the corporate response to HIV and other diseases has been the domain of the Corporate Responsibility and Health and Safety departments. But maybe it’s time we also looked further down the hall. When it comes to healthy supply chains, maybe a lawyer is what the doctor ordered.

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