by Marion Nestle
Apr 20 2011

The latest oxymoron: Oxfam helps Coca-Cola reduce poverty

I keep arguing that partnerships and alliances with food corporations put agriculture, food, nutrition, and public health advocacy groups in deep conflict of interest.

The latest example is Oxfam America’s partnership with Coca-Cola and bottler SAB Miller to evaluate the effectiveness of these corporations in reducing poverty (again, you can’t make these things up):

Despite the challenges involved, The Coca-Cola Company and SABMiller have each made ambitious and laudable commitments to labor rights, human rights, water, gender, and sustainability. However, there is little accountability to such commitments without the informed engagement of affected groups. By looking across all relevant issues (no cherry-picking) with an organization like Oxfam America and reporting out to stakeholders, these companies have opened themselves to heightened public scrutiny and hopefully increased accountability.

Hopefully, indeed.

The Oxfam Poverty Footprint Report describes the work Coca-Cola and SAB Miller are doing in Zambia and El Salvador to empower and promote sustainability.  It highlights Coca-Cola’s sustainability initiatives.

It does include some telling recommendations for follow-up.  For example:

  • Engage sugar farmers and producers to improve safety and health of sugarcane harvesters.
  • Investigate why independent truck drivers in Zambia work more than eight hours per day and discuss with drivers potential mechanisms to ensure safe driving.
  • Ensure The Coca-Cola Company’s global Advertising and Marketing to Children Policies are being effectively and consistently implemented at a regional level.

You have to read between the lines to see what this report really says.

And what about health, obesity, or the shocking increase in childhood tooth decay that is occurring in Latin America these days as a result of the influx of sugary drinks?  Not a word.

Why is Oxfam America helping Coca-Cola to market its products in Latin America and Africa?  I can only guess that Coca-Cola’s grant to Oxfam must have been substantial.

And thanks to Kelly Moltzen for sending the links.


  • Doc Mudd

    Oh, well, that’s how it goes with grants and institutions. The knife cuts both ways:

    Like dominoes. First Johns Hopkins sells out its credibility, then it’s Oxfam. Who’s next, NYU?

  • an outside observation

    Hi Marion,

    I find your post a bit myopic. Working in the sector, I agree that large corporations and NGOs, INGOs, and international organisations must be careful about their partnerships. I disagree however with the conclusions that you draw that lead readers to believe that it is a lose-lose for beneficiaries. First and foremost, corporations have a lot more to offer than a -product-. In the case of the Unilevers of the world, which may have high-energy biscuits to offer (specifically formulated for beneficiary needs, not commercial brands you find in your supermarket), these corporations also have valuable knowledge to transfer, whether it is packaging insight that can help organisations deliver food in the most resistant lightweight efficient packaging possible that minimises spoilage and breaking, or supply-chain knowledge that helps decrease delivery times, or exposure to customers for awareness– it is not all death and gloom. Second and equally important, funding at the levels needed by NGOs, INGOs, and international organisations can only be found at the super corporate and government level (and select royalty, and foundations). These aren’t one-off hit and run interactions, they are longer term partnerships. Third and final (though not exhaustive), the corporations learn from the NGOs/INGOs/international organisations about the beneficiaries in the communities in which they work, often bringing in greater involvement from governments. Do you really want Coca-Cola using all the potable water in a community to which he local people themselves have no access without considering the community’s need?

    That said, as populations the world over gain more buying power– moving from the country to the city, buying cars, eating more meat, it seems pretty naïve to say “It’s Coke’s fault they have tooth decay”. In Mexico they do drink sugary drinks– but it is sugar added to the glass of juice, in addition to any other sugar. So it’s not as simple as you paint it out to be. It’s also highly improbable that “poor people” are buying so much Coke (instead of other essential needs) that they are rotting their teeth by Coke (sugary drinks) alone. “Poor people” like sweet things as much as people in developed countries do.

    It is possible to find something bad about everything out there, but in order to maintain credibility, you should at least present your arguments with objectivity, acknowledging the other side.

  • john

    Re: an outside observation

    You make some very good points, your’e definitely more knowledgeable about this than me. I would not have thought about a lot of these things.

    Having said that, call me jaded, call me paranoid, and maybe myopic, but I still think it stinks. Big business has a choke hold on our politicians and government agencies in this country. (I’ve been in the USDA’s school lunch program for the past 15 years so I see it first hand everyday)

    I see this as just establishing the same type of quid pro quo in developing countries that these businesses have here. Let’s at least be realistic, Coke is about making money, period. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. What is bad is when they can affect the policy and decisions that the government makes concerning public health when it might hurt their bottom line.

  • Ms. Nestle doesn’t quite capture the scope and intent of this project. A few points to clarify some of Ms. Nestle’s closing statements.

    While the private sector alone won’t eradicate poverty, Oxfam believes that under the right conditions, it can help achieve the lasting change that is needed. 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

    One of the strengths of Oxfam’s Poverty Footprint methodology is its breadth. This study tackles a wide range of issues and impacts, from empowerment to gender to health; including The Coca-Cola Company’s marketing and labeling practices. It is meant to serve as a source of information and as a platform for new debate on a variety of topics that affect consumers with health certainly being one of them. By going broad the trade-off is depth. Is there more to be covered and researched around the impacts of these value chains? Absolutely. This project is an initial step and one that serves as a platform to discuss important issues for stakeholders in both countries.

    This project in no way is an attempt to market products or serve as a company endorsement. It is a comprehensive analysis of the positive and negative impacts on communities. 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. The gift had no impact or bearing on the Poverty Footprint Study.

    While this can be tricky, it is not uncommon territory for Oxfam. An example of our ability to collaborate and maintain our independence has been our work with Starbucks. Our relationship with that company began with collaboration on a project in Ethiopia – turned into a public battle about trademarks for specialty coffees – and now is focused on collaborating on policy change in Washington. Our independent voice keeps Oxfam’s approach to private sector collaborations dynamic and honest.

    Ultimately, the intent of this project is to uncover information on how The Coca-Cola Company and SABMiller impact poverty in the communities where they operate. Some impacts are more easily perceived – jobs created, technology transferred, water consumed, products offered – but some of the broadest impacts will occur far out along the supply or distribution chains, or may result from less easily assessed activities like marketing or advocacy. Oxfam’s goal is to share this information with important stakeholders so they are equipped to tackle problems and work within their communities to create solutions to poverty that best meet their needs.

    For more information about the project, visit:

    Chris Jochnick
    Director, Private Sector Department
    Oxfam America

  • This is a philosophical discussion about utilitarianism.

    A simpler view is that money talks, just look at what it achieves through lobbying.

    ‘Oxfam, Open Happiness’ – doesn’t that have a nice ring to it. #fail

  • As an expert in both food and alcohol marketing I can attest that the only goal of global companies such as Coca-Cola and SABMiller is to reach the far corners of the earth with sales of their products, health, environmental, and other consequences be damned.

    I suggest reading the Coke Machine to get a better understanding about how that company operates, especially regarding water in India. Of course all companies are going to engage in whatever PR opportunities they can to seem like responsible actors. It’s a sad day when an org such as Oxfam hands them the PR tools.

    I have written about how Nestle (the giant food company) is exploiting the people of Brazil with cheap ice cream, etc.

  • an outside observation

    I think it is fine to advocate keeping big business out of the humanitarian sphere.

    When single citizens cough up the time and money (read pre and post tax income) to make up the considerable shortfalls that these organisations work with, then the organisations won’t need to design partnerships to help them perform their work more efficiently.

    The fact is that governments alone can’t do it with the tax dollars they have, and for every crap comment that the naysayers have to say about big business here, I promise you there is a crap comment from a developing country about a developed country’s development programs, and vice versa.

    Oh, we can’t have any consulting companies or law firms provide pro-bono services to NGOs/INGOs/International Organisations because their clients are investment banks, and investment banks are bad. Oh we can’t have food companies share logistics/storage/packaging expertise because they also happen to produce the crummy potato chips you had for lunch. Oh we can’t have the US involved in anything, despite being the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in the solar system because they fob their surplus production off on the poor of the developing world. Oh we can’t accept any assistance from China because they oppress people. Oh we can’t let Oxfam work on a project because they partnered with Coca-Cola. Oh we can’t work with Russia because they treated the Georgians so ba. Oh we can’t work with the private sector because the private sector only wants to earn money, and they can’t actually care about helping anyone or anything but their bottom line.

    Where do you stop?? Seriously??

    I think people need to get over the hump of always looking for a problem and a reason to pick something apart, and stand back and look at what positive aspects there could be to situations. Of course after evaluating, you may conclude that there is a problem that is overwhelmingly negative, but at least you approach it with an open mind. I don’t really find that to be the case most of the time. People seem pretty ready to jump on the “smash big business” bandwagon, even though 3/4 of the time doing so is cutting your nose off to spite your face

  • Mary Shaeffer Smith

    Until the power returns to the people, no matter what country they reside in, there will be no justice in this world.

    It is very myopic indeed to believe that corporations and the power they wield will ever be the solution to the problems their existence have created. Einstein said it best when he told us that you can’t solve a problem using the same logic that created it.

    If we were to take an objective view of history, we would see that it has been governments and the corporate interests that control them that have been at the root of so many social ills.

    We need to get back to a way of living that includes local food sheds and barter and trade systems. Before money controlled the world, people controlled their lives, their communities and their basic health and welfare. This has all been systematically turned over to the greater powers of governments and corporations with money as the currency manipulated to control the masses.

    When we can replace these conversations with ones that center on the rights of the environment, humans and nature above the rights of corporations, we will begin to gain back the freedoms that our founding fathers believed in.

  • Wonderful… let’s “help” people by partnering with a company that steals their water, enslaves their people (low wages, poor conditions), poisons the environment (GMO corn, pesticides), and poisons its users (GMO corn syrup, sugar, aspartame, caramel coloring, chemical additives, etc.)…

    Yep, greenwashing at its finest…

  • Michael Bulger

    I think it is obvious where the scales rest.

    The point that seems to be lost on “an outside observation” is that Coca-Cola is still an economic and public health detriment to Latin American and African countries. Sure, it’s nice that Oxfam is pointing out small details as to how Coca-Cola can lessen their negative impact on Latin America and Africa. The underlying fact remains. Coca-Cola is profiting from the exploitation of the people of Latin America and Africa whilst undermining their health. $2.9 million seems to be enough for Oxfam to overlook that fact…

  • As someone quite familiar with the dangers that sponsorship by Coca Cola and similar corporations can have on the health of humans and the environment, and also a big fan of Oxfam because of its commitment to investing in community-based solutions across the globe, I actually find the Poverty Footprint Report quite intriguing. I’ve been to enough Oxfam Action Corps NYC meetings, Oxfam America events, and even participated in a few Oxfam America webinars, to know that the organization has no ulterior motives. Oxfam works really hard to improve the livelihoods of people in developing countries, and does not ignore the health impacts of agricultural practices. The organization has worked towards solutions for the Farm Bill in the past and continues to do so for the upcoming Farm Bill.

    I found out about the Poverty Footprint Report through an email update from Oxfam America. I’m on so many food justice and nonprofit list-serves it makes me dizzy, and have read and signed enough online petitions supporting or fighting this legislation or that, and frankly it’s tiring to feel like we’re spinning our wheels all the time. I agree with the comments of “an outside observation” – we need to stop instinctually writing off groups and corporations just because they might stand for something we disagree with. Some heads of corporations may have nothing but profit in mind, but at the end of the day they are people too, and if provided with the facts about how their company causes poverty and harm to health and the environment, as well as solutions-based recommendations and accountability, is it so hard to fathom that they won’t refuse to work as a team to correct the problem?

    I originally sent the information about Oxfam & Coca Cola to the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition (HEN) Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), which is actively struggling with the realities of the fact that Coca Cola (among others) is a corporate sponsor of the ADA. And I still sent the Oxfam links not with spite and cynicism, but with hope. We have to look for ways to work together. And it can be done.

    The first thing I looked for when I came across the Poverty Footprint Report was whether or not Oxfam had addressed the fact that Coca Cola is basically unrestrained in the amount of marketing and selling it does of its products around the world. And I found these suggestions, which Marion only posted one of:

    Recommendations for follow-up action (Products & Marketing):
    -Explore the feasibility of introducing micronutrient supplementation programs in these markets, working with government, health and civil society experts. Consider how a micronutrient enhanced product’s promotion, pricing, distribution and service practices could increase community purchasing and health.
    -Ensure The Coca-Cola Company’s global Advertising and Marketing to Children Policies are being effectively and consistently implemented at a regional level.
    -Leverage marketing messages to educate consumers on the value of proper nutrition, a balanced diet and regular physical activity.
    -Investigate how to provide nutritional information to consumers at point of sale and through other methods, given the wide use of glass bottles without labels and low levels of literacy in some areas.
    -Collaborate with independent health experts, civil society and governments to explore whether additional guidance or action is needed to educate consumers on nutrition and health.

    Granted, everyone can now take the recommendations put forth by Oxfam and leverage them through their own organizations to hold Coca Cola accountable. But I’ll just speak for my role within HEN: perhaps ADA’s partnership with Coca Cola means we have leverage to influence the corporation to ensure that Oxfam’s recommendations are put into action.

    Kelly Moltzen, MPH, RD
    HEN member
    Oxfam Action Corps volunteer

  • an outside observation

    Not lost on me at all. I understand fully the perspectives expressed here, and respect them. I’ve also seen smallholder farmers and women in Latin America and Africa become independent and increase their output, clean up their produce so that it is marketable (quality standards), sell a local product so that they have a business (keeping in mind the scale of what a business is in these areas), thanks to the corporate transfer of knowledge and support of research with NGOs/INGOs/International Organisations. The part that people don’t seem to get here is that the beneficiaries have no idea who is responsible for helping organisations understand how to fortify their food. When World Food Programme develops a nutritious product based on local diets which is then produced in a local factory, or buys flour from local producers so that local bakers can continue to make the bread for local people, it doesn’t have anything corporate on it. And nobody is exploiting the people while allowing them to continue to eat, when they would otherwise starve following an earthquake or a flood, or a war, or the fall out from elections. For example.

    I am not saying that there is all GOOD or all BAD, that multinationals haven’t done damage and don’t continue to do damage, I am saying that the original post does not at all present an objective view of how partnerships really work.

    Let’s put it this way, before I started telling people that we should go back to bartering and trading (which is still a CURRENCY system, any way you cut it… people without anything to barter or trade will still be SOL), I’d like to actually know what the scope of the issue is.

    It’s not enough for me to condemn someone based on one perspective. Unless it’s Karl Rove.

  • Doc Mudd

    If we were suddenly, tragically reduced to a system of local famine-sheds and barter some of you would learn how truly worthless your romantic grant-funded opinions are.

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  • Michael Bulger

    I think you have to be a long way from Oxford, if you know what I mean, to miss the point of this post.

    The president of Oxfam opens the report by writing, “Oxfam America has long served as an unwavering advocate for the world’s poor.”

    What I think this blog does well in pointing out is that Oxfam also now seems to be working as a market research arm of a company. Further, the act of assisting a junk food company to better sell their products to those in poverty has ramifications for public health which are not in keeping with Oxfam’s purported mission.

  • Doc Mudd

    Uh oh. Well, I’ll be jiggered if NYU hasn’t already been there and done that with Coca-Cola.

    Hmmm. NYU’s motives must be pure, more pure than Oxfam’s, right?

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  • I am surprised that no one pointed out the most EGREGIOUS action of Coke to eradicate poverty:
    check out their 5 by 20 campaign

    Who is going to pick up the tab for obesity, type 2 diabetes, dental decay etc as these “empowered women” peddling coke to the far corners of the world see their children getting fatter and sicker while Coke gets richer and richer.

    I’m sorry but there is just no redeeming quality to carbonated soft drinks and corporate apologists saying this is good for women is disgusting.

  • tooearly

    Ah the joys of corporatism/fascism in the early 21st Century. 50 years from now, no one will even remember what it was like before Oxfam-Coke merged to alleviate suffering…

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  • Anonymous Account

    Are people suggesting there’s a way to get Coca-Cola out of there (whether via some magical non-paternalistic way or otherwise) now that they’re already entrenched? If so, are we going to be seeing it here? If not, why not use an intractable (barring some Hugo Chavez-style situation) corporation to get a little work done? I know this post is three years old, yes.

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