Packaging firm may join aid business

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Tetra Pak, the international food processing and packaging company, is actively considering moving into the aid business to deliver essential food and medical supplies to disaster zones such as Rwanda and Bosnia.

Tetra Pak regularly gives supplies of oral rehydration solution to aid agencies but this is believed to be the first time that a commercial enterprise has considered being directly involved in supplying relief aid.

Sources close to the Swedish company said it has conducted market research to find out how the press and public would react to a company conducting direct relief and whether it would improve its brand image. It wanted to find out how journalists cover disasters, what they consider good stories and what coverage they give to the distributors of aid.

Aid agency officials have reacted with surprise and caution to the prospect of working alongside a transnational company. One asked what motives Tetra Pak could have in working in a field associated with altruism rather than profit. Another pointed out that the skills and finance Tetra Pak would bring could change the whole approach to aid.

The company is owned by two Swedish brothers, Hans and Gad Rausing, now resident in England and estimated to be the richest men in Britain. They are said to be worth £5.2bn. The company's sales of the milk and fruit juice containers which are its sole product were estimated at £6bn last year. But it avoids publicity and does not advertise.

In August it announced it was giving cartons of oral rehydration solution, a mixture of salts and carbohydrates, to combat the cholera and dysentry epidemics in the refugee camps in Zaire.

Tetra Pak's decision comes at a time of acute rivalry in the aid world. The agreement between aid agencies about fundraising is breaking down and some are accusing others of cowboy tactics and the ruthless pursuit of funds at the expense of the values aid agencies stand for.

The row over fundraising in Britain has been building for some time but was triggered by the record breaking appeal for Rwanda this year. The appeal, launched in April, has raised more than £36m, twice as much as any previous appeal.

The prospect of a multinational company moving into the delivery of aid also illustrates how far the aid business has come since the age of the amateur volunteer. Most aid agencies recruit highly qualified and experienced staff and pay competitive salaries. But recently some agencies have put their fundraising in the hands of professionals who have no experience of aid work and tend to put income generation before co-operation with the other agencies.