Ethiopia: It costs $5 for a tea, $17 to save a child's life

The contrast was stark: babies and toddlers dying of preventable diseases while guests at a hotel in Addis Ababa tasted the high life. Then the penny dropped and corporate social responsibility began to make a difference. Steve Bloomfield reports from the Ethiopian village of Woreb

Sunday 11 May 2008 00:00

Jilaye Muluken's first son died of rabies at the age of seven; her second died after a fever at the age of two; her third was stillborn. The pain of losing her children so young, to disease so preventable, is not uncommon here in the village of Woreb, northern Ethiopia.

As she breast-feeds her fourth son, eight-month-old Abraham, sat on the dirt floor of a mud hut, Jilaye counts off dozens of other children in her village who died before they made it to five. Her brother lost one of his daughters at just five months; her husband's sister lost four of her seven children.

"We have suffered so much but this time it will be different," she smiles as she looks down at Abraham. In the next room, more than 20 other mothers are learning about vaccinations. The local government health worker is preparing to immunise the village's babies and toddlers against six of the most common and preventable diseases found in children. Baby Abraham will be one of those vaccinated.

Jilaye's life in Woreb is a world away from the five-star luxury of the Sheraton Addis, widely considered the finest hotel in Africa. Chandeliers hang from the high lobby ceiling, Ethiopia's elite drink $5 (£2.50) cups of tea while sitting in exquisite mahogany chairs, and guests sleep on some of the comfiest beds in the world in rooms that cost around $300 per night. People like Jilaye live on less than $1 a day.

But the two worlds are linked. As the Sheraton Addis was being constructed in 1995, the hotel group's lawyer, Robert Scott, watched a documentary about poverty in Addis Ababa. "The contrast between what we were building and the poverty was huge," he recalls. "I woke up the next morning thinking there's got to be some way we can do something to help."

He also worried that the hotel's guests would not be aware of the level of poverty in the Ethiopian capital. "It is entirely possible someone will come to Addis, stay at the Sheraton, and not see what the city is like," he said.

The solution was Check Out For Children, a collaborative scheme with children's organisation Unicef, which asks guests at hotels across the Starwood chain (owner of the Sheraton, Meridien and Westin brands) to donate $1 to their bill to pay for child vaccinations.

It costs Unicef $17 to vaccinate a single child against six major diseases: polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis and measles. Now in its 13th year, the scheme has raised more than $17m, immunising just over one million children. "You can see the results," says Mr Scott. "These children won't die of these diseases."

When the scheme began in 1995, the phrase "corporate social responsibility" was still unknown to most people. But in the past decade CSR has morphed from a feelgood add-on that livens up a company report ("Look! Smiling children outside a school we built!") to become a more integral part of the way companies do business.

UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are increasingly turning to corporations for financial support – and many of those companies are now seeing the benefit of partnerships with aid agencies that go far beyond donations.

"More and more businesses now see CSR as what you do every day," says Euan Wilmshurst, the stakeholder engagement manager for Coca-Cola. "Meaningful partnerships aren't just giving some money to a charity and hoping no one has a go at you. If you just do that, you're missing a big point."

That point, Mr Wilmshurst argues, is building a sustainable business. "Unless the communities you operate in are healthy and happy for you to be there, you are never going to do well."

Those changes have also been reflected in Check Out For Children, which has been shifting its focus. Guest donations will now go towards provide care for orphans, preventing HIV transmission from mothers to babies and improving access to clean water.

For aid agencies, corporate partnerships can be a welcome source of finance, as well as advertising their work to a wider audience. "Corporations are now a key source of funding for us," says Joanne Andrews, Unicef's manager for the Check Out For Children programme. "We can raise funds and awareness."

The partnerships have now become an integral part of Unicef's funding, with companies as diverse as Pampers, British Airways and Manchester United Football Club signing up. In all, Unicef raised $94m from its corporate allies in 2006 – a sevenfold increase since 2000.

There are concerns, though. Following the success of Check Out For Children, Mr Scott was invited on to the board of Unicef UK and helped advise on new corporate partnerships. "Every once in a while, a proposition would be put forward where the company was clearly trying to use Unicef. NGOs have to be careful about who they participate with."

But the attraction to aid agencies is obvious, says Mr Scott: "NGOs need money. Corporations have access to money."

The attitudes of companies have come a long way too. When Mr Scott first took his idea to his board, he thought he'd "get laughed out of the room". Now, "it has seeped into our corporate culture. A programme like this makes us ask questions about every part of our business."

Apart from Check Out For Children, Starwood has encouraged its employees to raise money for Unicef. The result of a sponsored staff bike ride from Amsterdam to Brussels was $250,000, much of which has gone to youth associations like the one in Bahir Dar, a town in northern Ethiopia, which provides support for orphans and vulnerable children.

Using small amounts of seed money, the association has enabled former prostitutes, single mothers and struggling families to build their own businesses.

Down an alleyway, over a pool of stagnant water, is Abrehet Asgedom's house. It has room for a single bed, a small shelf packed with cooking utensils, and little else. She shares it with four of her five children, including 12-year-old Mary. The 100 birr (£5) she receives every month from the youth association pays for Mary's education. Tuition is free, but fees for transport, books and uniform are too much. Without the donation, says Abrehet, she would have had to put her child up for adoption.

Mary's dream is to become a doctor. "I want to support the sick and fight HIV," she says, as her mother wipes away a tear.

Two blocks away, on the corner of a busy intersection, is Demberie Demissie's new hairdressing salon. Without a husband to help her support her 10-year-old son, Amanuel, Demberie turned to prostitution. "I didn't have a job," she said. "What could I do?"

But with a 1,000 birr loan, which paid for a training course in hairdressing, everything is different. She charges her customers 12 birr, making 50 to 60 birr most days. "I had nothing to eat and couldn't send my child to school. Now it has all changed. "I was nobody – now I have become somebody."

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