by Marion Nestle
Apr 21 2011

More on Oxfam’s anti-poverty partnership with Coca-Cola

Among the many thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post is one from the Director of Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department, Chris Jochnick, who writes that I did not “quite capture the scope and intent of this project.”

As part of our work, Oxfam has a responsibility to engage with global corporations, through both collaboration and campaigns, in order to have constructive dialog on their business practices.

….Throughout the work, Oxfam has maintained complete independence including the ability to undertake advocacy against either company if the situation warranted. The Coca-Cola Company and Oxfam America shared the costs of the collaboration roughly in the proportion of 2:1, with The Coca-Cola Company contributing two-thirds of the costs (US $400,000) and Oxfam America contributing one-third of the costs in kind including staff time.

Unrelated to the study, The Coca-Cola Company made an earlier donation of $2,500,000 to Oxfam between 2008-2010 for humanitarian work in Sudan, with an emphasis on work related to water, sanitation and hygiene.

….Our independent voice keeps Oxfam’s approach to private sector collaborations dynamic and honest.

Let me add a bit more about what I think is wrong with this picture.

The goal of Coca-Cola is to sell more Coca-Cola.  The goal of Oxfam is to address world poverty.  I’m having trouble understanding how these goals could be mutually compatible.

Coke sales in the United States are flagging.  Last year, three quarters of Coke’s revenue derived from sales outside of North America in emerging economies where rates of obesity are increasing rapidly.

Sugary beverages like Coke are increasingly associated with obesity and its health consequences, problems now rampant in developing economies.

In the past year, Coke has embarked on an aggressive campaign of contributions to potentially critical groups such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Save the Children, and now Oxfam.

These groups are now highly unlikely to advise their constituents to cut down on sugary sodas.  If nothing else, sponsorship buys silence.

Oxfam may have done the work of its Poverty Footprint Report without company interference.  It is what is not in the report that is so much in Coke’s interest.

For just under $3 million, Coke has purchased an endorsement from Oxfam of its “anti-poverty” practices and silence on the role of sugary drinks in obesity.  This kind of public relations is well worth the price.

What does Oxfam get in this bargain?  The money, of course, but at the cost of serious questions about the credibility of its report and its independence.  Perhaps these are tolerable, but what about loss of respect?

I score this as a win for Coca-Cola.




  • Doc Mudd

    Sugary softdrinks are a burning issue in developing countries served by Oxfam, but not an issue in developed countries whose artistic communications are served by NYU’s Tisch school?

    Oxfam’s ox is singled out to be gored.

    Oh well, thats “food politics”, no?

  • I recently visited Costa Rica, shopping in the local markets and cooking most of our meals. We would identify the rural areas “food deserts” by US standards. The small “sodas” (Tico speak for roadside cafe often with a little market) looked like our typical convenience store in about 100 square feet.

    The predominant shelf space held pan dulce and packaged refined starch snacks and sweets. Most of the refrigeration space was dedicated to sodas and beer.

    The larger markets sold more fresh meats and produce–but only about 20 feet of wall space each. The aisles were filled with refined starch snacks, sodas, sugared cereals and the like.

    We already have a good idea what will happen as the per capital income rises. With 33% of its budget spent on education, Costa Rica is poised to step into greater prosperity and all the metabolic risks associated with it.

  • Kelly

    “The goal of Coca-Cola is to sell more Coca-Cola. The goal of Oxfam is to address world poverty. I’m having trouble understanding how these goals could be mutually compatible.”

    Oh, easy! See, Coca-Cola can’t sell more of their products if people are poor. People need to at least have the basics so that they can then be told they need more than the basics – like Coke!

    Coca-Cola’s doing this for two, maybe three, reasons:
    1 – tax write-off (<– important)
    2 – physically creating a market by making sure people aren't too poor (or dead) to buy their products
    3 – goodwill gesture in the eyes of American consumers/hoping to buy silence ("Coca-Cola does X good, I should support them"/"don't bite the hand that feeds")

    However, the cynic in me notes that it's likely the combination of tax write-off and insured population of consumers that's motivating them more than anything else.

  • Anthro

    I’m sure Oxfam means what it says when it tries to rationalize it’s unethical (at least) behavior in the rather lame statement you quote, but it doesn’t absolve them in any way. Same for CDF and the rest.

    This is what happens when you rely on the private sector for dealing with large systemic problems. Their basic responsibility to endlessly increase profits, to return to shareholders, makes it impossible for them to act in the best interests of children and their health. I don’t care how much water they help to clean up (and all the other projects they tout), they still use that water to make flavored sugar water which they in turn market heavily to an unsuspecting populace.

    I don’t own any Coca-Cola stock; how about you?

  • Oxfam has been advocating for greater corporate transparency and accountability for decades. There are many ways to move that agenda forward. Poverty footprinting along the lines of the report we co-authored with The Coca-Cola Company and SAB Miller is one tool aimed at broadening the sphere of corporate responsibility and spurring engagement on the ground. We went into this work with the companies with eyes wide open and with full independence to campaign. NGOs need to be wary about the risks of greenwash, but that needn’t shut down every form of collaboration.

    We are eager to have a public conversation about these issues. We hope Ms. Nestle is interested in the same.

    In the meantime, for those interested in our thoughts on this project, why we did it and what we hope to accomplish, check back in on our blog, and website for updates. Our full response to Ms. Nestle’s original blog post on this topic is still posted here for those who are interested in more details:

    Chris Jochnick
    Director, Private Sector Department
    Oxfam America

  • It’s sad to see Oxfam continue its desperate attempt to defend itself. It’s also unclear how exactly NGOs expect to attain “greater corporate transparency and accountability” as they accept multi-million donations from these very corporations. What often is missing from these discussions is a lack of historical context. Oxfam is not the first to attempt hold corporations like Coca-Cola accountable, you’re just the latest in the company’s long list of orgs to be fooled into thinking you can do so.

    The only way to truly hold corporations accountable is through a little system we call The Law. But Coca-Cola and SABMiller are happy let Oxfam take the place of a legal system because they know it can’t work. History tells us so. It’s rather audacious for an NGO to think they can hold anyone accountable, let alone a multinational corporation the size of Coca-Cola. We don’t expect NGOs to ensure criminals don’t rob people. We have a legal system for that. Why should corporations be any different?

  • Joe

    “Sugary beverages like Coke are increasingly associated with obesity and its health consequences, problems now rampant in developing economies”

    Wouldn’t this statement mean that hunger is decreasing? Can a country have both escalating obesity and escalating issues with hunger? It would seem that at some point one would cancel the other out.

    Maybe the new Coke slogan could be: End hunger, Drink Coke.

  • Suzanne


    An excellent answer to your question, “Can a country have both escalating obesity and escalating issues with hunger? “, read Raj Patel’s book “Stuffed and Starved.” The answer is a resounding YES.

    It’s both a sociopolitical and a biologically based answer.

  • Mr Chris Jochnick

    Look around you, people in America are suffering from poor nutrition.

    Look at the caliber and expertise of the nutritional experts, which you are not, that are commenting on your actions and listen to what they are saying.

    Oxfam works for the social good of communities that need help because they do not have the means, knowledge or opportunity to help themselves.

    What is the difference between Oxfam’s work and that of the nutritional experts that are saying your are actions are not helping them to help the people of America, and beyond, to fight the issues that sustain the causes of poor public health?

    Oxfam, Open Happiness. #fail

  • Doc Mudd

    Uhh…”nutritional experts…that are commenting”…huh?

    C’mon, edSanD, let’s not get too full of ourselves here.

    “Experts”, opinionated amateurs or propagandists – can’t sort them out from where we’re sitting. Agendas enough to go around, and then some.

  • Joe

    I will look for Stuffed and Starved but there is still a big difference between not having food in sufficient amounts that might lead from hunger to starvation and death and experiencing malnutrition.

    A similar claim is made of citizens in the United States that many are obese while suffering malnutrition. However what is never really highlighted is the type of malnutrition. What vitamins and minerals are a large part of the population deficient in? None that I hear of.

  • Rebecca


    Well obesity is a form of malnourishment.

  • Bronwen

    I live in Africa, where very clever marketing has captured the poor African market in a very big way. Standing in the check-out queue, with my basket of fresh fruit and veg, I am very often standing next to someone, obviously disadvantaged, whose basket contains a large bottle of Coke, a loaf of white sliced bread, and some very pink cheap polony. That’s lunch. It has happened times without number, it is the norm now.

  • Doc Mudd

    I ask you, Bronwen, which of you has the most complete nutrition in his/her basket?

    The “obviously disadvantaged” has makin’s for a meal of bologna sandwiches for a small family – protein, carbs, essential fats to keep them laboring at work or study. Sure, has some flaws and could be improved if there were funds.

    You have a basket of mostly water, some dietary fiber and a few calories. No protein, limited energy. Merely a luxurious condiment to a proper meal you must have purchased elsewhere.

    Sounds like you both could shop smarter and each could fashion a more complete nutrition for your families. Interesting to learn Africa is populated with all sorts, including those with a sweet tooth and their persecuters, the inevitable food police.

    I’m gonna declare myself a nutrition expert and get me a shiny food cop badge. I’m practicing my glaring and finger wagging right now!

  • an outside observation

    Thanks for deleting my comments Marion– shows you really are interested in having both sides of the issue– positives and negatives, as well as editing Chris Jochnick’s, which pointed out that your original post did not quite capture the spirit of the study.

    I’ve used my real email address here, I’m happy for you to contact me at any time to discuss what you clearly feel is an unfair representation of what NGOs/INGOs/International organisations look for when establishing partnerships with large corporations, and the benefits that beneficiaries derive from such long term relationships.

  • Michael

    I recognize the validity of the criticism here vis-a-vis nutritional concerns, but I wonder whether the “pay for play” assumption isn’t being overwrought. Really, has Oxfam not earned any benefit of the doubt in all these years? You’re all ready and willing to assume the worst? This is where liberals (and I am one) get ourselves into trouble with our own forms of puritanism. Sometimes progress doesn’t look quite the way we would like, and we need to learn to get comfortable with that. Intolerant, puritanical attitudes toward change and the complicated route to progress are the real failure. Oxfam appears to be trying what others probably consider themselves above doing, and good for them.

    Furthermore, the cynical “pay for play” assumption presumes the worst about Oxfam’s humanitarian work. Do you honestly believe Oxfam would accept $2.5 million in aid money (years ago) for the people of Darfur with strings attached? On what historical basis do you draw such a conclusion? Do you imagine Oxfam would be expected to refund that money to Coca-Cola if this footprint report didn’t meet their expectations? That’s absurd. (I’m an Oxfam supporter, so I’m in their camp on this one.)

    The last point I’ll make is that we should beware neo-colonial attitudes about development. While I agree that the nutritional value of products like Coca-Cola are virtually nil, it is not our place to tell poor countries how to determine their own path forward. Educate them–YES. Provide as much information as possible about the potential harm of products like these, but leave it to them to decide how to deal with it. We have a much bigger role to play in lobbying for change here in the US and the UK, where Coca-Cola and SABMiller, respectively, are headquartered. In due course, poor countries will have the power and the ability to decide for themselves what multi-national corporations they want doing business in their countries and poisoning their people. They deserve the right to make those choices on their own without our elitist “we know better” interference.

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  • Kate

    Oxfam (and other charities and NGOs) are really over a barrel with respect to funding their efforts. Direct donations from regular citizens aren’t nearly enough to keep their efforts going, and governments — as the collective arm of their citizens — are not filling the gap. Thus, Oxfam makes something of a Devil’s bargain: save lives by taking money from Evil Food Company who will make other people fat.

    Frankly, I think its an easy bargain to make. These people will die of dysentery, typhus, malaria, etc. NOW, right now, today, tomorrow, this week. The only way they’re going to die from diseases related to abundance (i.e. conditions secondary to obesity) is if they not only survive past childhood but thrive in an environment where there is more than they can reasonably consume. That is not likely to happen in my lifetime, certainly not in their foreshortened lifetimes.

    Frankly I think suggesting that Oxfam turning down $2.5M to save lives because Americans are fat represents the pinnacle of American colonialism.

  • Corporate sponsorship by companies that sell unhealthy food and beverages seems to be more damaging when the money is going to organizations and governments whose responsibility it is to educate the public about nutrition. For example, when Coca Cola sponsors the American Dietetic Association or the meat or dairy industries sponsor the United States Department of Agriculture, this not only sends mixed messages but also may even CHANGE the messages that need to be disseminated. As Marion Nestle writes in her book “Food Politics” (a must read, by the way), one of the main reasons we are told by the USDA in the food pyramid to consume moderate amounts of lean meat and dairy, is because of sponsorship by the meat and dairy industries. Sponsorship of the ADA by Coca Cola also changes the message to say that everything is okay in moderation, while in fact we’d be much better off without a lot of the junk that comprises today’s “SAD” (Standard American Diet).

    But Oxfam is in a unique position to work with Coca Cola. Yes, one of the ways to improve human health worldwide is for people to not drink Coca Cola, don’t get me wrong. But Oxfam does so much more than that. They help empower women, come up with solutions to deal with climate change which is primarily caused by developed countries such as the US, etc etc etc. One thing they can focus on, which may not have been their primary focus in the past, is bringing nutrition information to people throughout the world.

    People in underdeveloped countries have traditionally not needed nutrition education because their diets were naturally healthy, as they ate what was provided to them directly by nature. There was no need for anyone to understand about nutrition. However, within the last half century things have changed, as fast food and sweetened beverages have become highly prevalent. People who did not know about these products beforehand have come to learn about them and desire them the same way Americans have because of all the marketing we’ve been doused with. But now that the cat’s out of the box and Coca Cola, McDonald’s and other unhealthy food multinationals have made their mark around the world, there is a need for nutrition education.

    It shouldn’t be up to us to decide who should be allowed to eat and drink what foods and beverages. People in other countries should have many of the same freedoms that Americans have. But along with those freedoms should come nutrition education, so that people can make an educated decision about what they’d like to put into their bodies.

    So, let’s make this a constructive argument. Let’s say Coca Cola and Oxfam have both realized that nutrition education is now important, and Coca Cola decides to make some constructive changes. What specifically would we like to see Coca Cola do? Work with local governments to ensure that children receive nutrition education in schools? Start a public health social marketing campaign reminding people of the health of the age-old traditional diets which have kept their people healthy for centuries? Put a health warning on soda the same way the US Surgeon General has put a warning on cigarettes and the FDA is planning to expand upon ( What are the solutions? Let’s make this a solutions-based conversation. The same way governments want advocacy to be solutions-based, I’m sure Coca-Cola wants some solutions-based ideas to improve its corporate responsibility.

    Kelly Moltzen, MPH, RD

  • Doc Mudd

    Kelly M. delivers up a romantic re-writing of history: “People in underdeveloped countries have traditionally not needed nutrition education because their diets were naturally healthy, as they ate what was provided to them directly by nature.” And salves her misdiagnosis with a wishful prescription: “Start a public health social marketing campaign reminding people of the health of the age-old traditional diets which have kept their people healthy for centuries…”

    Hmm. Quite a leap to completely erase and overwrite the harsh realities of famine, hunger and starvation during the past century in China, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and many other places (and some not so “underdeveloped” at all).

    Beyond romantic to imagine any of this was a “naturally healthy” state of affairs; naive beyond belief, really. With a palpable theme of bigotry downplaying of a legacy of famine, as with the conciliatory statement: “People in other countries should have many of the same freedoms that Americans have”

    This is all rather confusing. So then, are we fundamentally bashing Oxfam for their intervention in “naturally healthy” expressions of the human condition and opportunistically sniping at Coca-Cola in the bargain; wounding two birds with the hurling of one naive elitist stone, as it were? It is noteworthy that so many are condemning Oxfam but none are stepping up to fund them in the place of Coca-Cola. Sorta proves the age-old truism; “talk is cheap”.

  • Doc Mudd, forgive me for the generalizations, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it naive to say that traditional diets are unhealthy. Read “The Jungle Effect” by Daphne Miller, MD (

    I do understand that humans have undergone famine, hunger and starvation throughout history – things that will only get worse with time if we don’t take care of the Earth and use sustainable agricultural practices (see “Diet for a Hot Planet” by Anna Lappe – But take a look at the facts on Ellen Gustafson’s “30 Project” website. “There are 1 billion people on Earth who are overweight….Obesity rates for adults have doubled since 1980, and rates for children have tripled….Childhood obesity may cut 2-5 years off the lifespan of an average child in America – marking the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.” I could go on, but you can check them out for yourself at Notice how she also writes “Solutions lie not in feeding the world, but in allowing the world to feed itself. Switching to sustainable farming increases harvests in developing nations by an average of 73%.” And in terms of fighting hunger, Ellen is also the person who started FEED Projects, which provides meals for children who need them (

    And again, as I mentioned in the last post but which I have not seen you do Doc Mudd, I would encourage you to make this a solutions-based conversation. I am tired of all the bashing. If there are questions you’d like answered, ask them. There are people out there who can answer them.

  • And for any Oxfam (or Coca Cola?) staff reading these posts, also be sure to check out Marion Nestle’s post from a week ago, where she lists out some other issues that Coca Cola needs to address.

  • Doc Mudd

    That’s right Oxfam, Coke and all you big successful evil-doers. Listen up —

    Conspiring to improve the lives of disadvantaged foreigners is bad. Very bad. Pure evil when you so collude.

    But…collaborating with and funding the artsy-fartsy set here at home is good. Very good. Deliciously warm and wonderful.

    Oh boy, “interesting and creative films” from NYU students and faculty funded by Coca-Cola. Yay!!! Now, whose gonna buy us the popcorn?

  • Lee Poe

    You take their money, they get to at least influence the selection of songs, if not the whole dance.

    But I think the struggle was lost a long time ago when the language of what is going on got so cheapened and confused. “Poverty footprinting” — what the heck is that? Measuring the shoeless for shoes? Making ID cards with toe prints?

    Nestlë puts it clearly: “The goal of Coca-Cola is to sell more Coca-Cola. The goal of Oxfam is to address world poverty. I’m having trouble understanding how these goals could be mutually compatible.”

    But I guess Oxfam would write it like this: ‘The primary generative focus of the Coca-Cola corporation is to explore new ways of enhancing growth in all strategic areas relevant to its shareholder responsibilities for which we believe mutually beneficial dialogue is not only possible but also actually socially responsible and remunerative in a way we can call green, good and just spiffy. The global strategic focus of Oxfam is to reduce the worldwide poverty footprint from a size 12 to a size 6 by creating enhanced awareness of the system of disadvantaging those without advantage. Our goals are mutually synergistic in that our paradigms are compatible on a fundamental level: we both aim in a caring, nurturing process for increased revenues to meet out mission statements.” Or something.

  • I just wanted to point out, it is pretty bad that NYU receives donations from Coca Cola – especially because a ban on Coca Cola at NYU due to the company’s infringement of human rights was rescinded so that NYU could continue receiving money from Coca Cola.

  • Michael

    @Lee Poe: I believe you are oversimplifying things and being entirely too puritanical in your expectations of how organizations like Oxfam should successfully address global poverty and interact with major international players like Coca-Cola in that effort. It is virtually impossible to achieve progress without the willing participation of multi-national corporations. It’s a messy, imperfect way forward, but Oxfam has enormous credibility and integrity on its side. An open-minded approach to the potential and possibilities would seem to be more consistent with the goal of a fair, equitable, prosperous world for everyone. I’m not saying the end would necessarily justify the means; I’m saying the means will not always be ideologically pure.

    And to your point about what the heck “poverty footprinting” is… footprinting studies have been a well-established approach in the international development community for quite some time. This report was (most likely) not written for the general public, so if someone happens upon it and claims to find all the technical jargon off-putting, that’s really not the authors’ fault. If you read the report it is fairly self-explanatory to anyone reasonably literate.

  • Lee Poe

    @Michael: as long as you’re fine with language being neglected and abused, cool. But since reasonable literacy isn’t something to be expected in many places these days, Oxfam needs to do a better job presenting their view to the world in a way that world can comprehend.

    Unfortunately Chris Jochnick’s reply here is not “reasonably literate” but rather full of jargon, vacuous terms and vague proclamations. If he’s writing for the general public he should try to make sense. No wonder people aren’t sure what Oxfam is up to — to go by Jochnick’s writing he isn’t either.

  • Coke Farms

    Urban Farming Gardens Sprouting Up in Detroit (with video)
    DETROIT (WJBK) – Coca-Cola and Home Depot are joining forces with Urban Farming to feed Detroit neighborhoods desperate for fresh vegetables. The gardens will thrive thanks to a rain barrel system that provides irrigation. = greenwashing for hire. they’re also the “non-profit” behind Kraft Corporation’s Triscuit Home Farming

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