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Corporations Give Unprecedented Aid To Rwandan Disaster

August 10, 1994

NEW YORK (AP) _ Drugmaker Eli Lilly dispatched several tractor-trailer trucks filled with $60 million in antibiotics and other medicines. Shawmut Bank made its 300 branches in New England into drop-offs for UNICEF donations.

U.S. companies have given tens of million of dollars in aid - mostly medical - to Rwanda in recent weeks, an outpouring that relief officials call an unprecedented show of company giving for a disaster abroad.

Some agencies criticize the response as belated, coming two months after the African country first became torn by ethnic massacres. As is often the case, donations largely have involved goods that cannot be sold.

But others say the donors are acting faster and with more initiative than before, reflecting burgeoning international giving by corporations expanding abroad, an appetite for free publicity and perhaps a dollop of plain old altruism.

″I’ve never had the experience of corporations or foundations calling and offering to do something,″ says Mark Gelber, senior executive director for development and communications at the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, the body that raises funds for the children’s aid group.

″It’s been an unusually quick and good response from corporations,″ he said.

As in other disasters abroad, the bulk of corporate aid has been medicine and medical supplies, since that is what is most urgently needed, according to InterAction, a Washington-based umbrella group for nearly 150 U.S. aid agencies. Less common are cash donations.

Agencies that specialize in shipping U.S. medical donations abroad say Rwanda appeals first went out in May, when the country already had been wracked by nearly a month of ethnic bloodshed.

Ann Carlos, president of Direct Relief International, says responses were slow to her Santa Barbara, Calif. group’s first appeals in May and June.

″The problem was that no one jumped on this or understood the magnitude of the problem at the beginning,″ she said in a telephone interview, noting that offers did not pick up until media coverage intensified in July.

Nancy Mehlman of MAP International said her Atlanta-based group’s first appeals drew some offers. But she said that turning those into firm donations takes weeks, as MAP tries to match reports of need on the ground with donations on hand.

One complication is that companies usually offer the goods that take the least skin off their corporate noses, such as overstock or other products that can’t be sold.

The Ceclor antibiotic sent by Eli Lilly and Co., for example, was a new twice-daily dosage form of the drug that had been produced in anticipation of winning federal regulatory approval.

But when approval was delayed, the company was left with millions of tablets that could be dispatched to Rwanda but would have been too old to be shipped to stores, Lilly explained in a statement.

Lilly’s donations are ″a combination of extent of need and what we have on hand,″ says Fritz Frommeyer, a spokesman for the Indianapolis-based company. ″Fortunately, we had something useful in this particular situation.″

Aid officials and experts defend this practice of acting in ″enlightened self-interest.″

″They had a product, there was a need, they put that product with the need. ... It’s recycling for life,″ Ellen Engleman, director of corporate and government relations at Direct Relief International, said of the Lilly gift.

Companies should have other motives for giving, says Ann Kaplan, research director for the non-profit American Association of Fundraising-Council Trust for Philanthropy. ″They were incorporated to earn money for investors. ... There’s no logical reason they should (give money away).″

Along with free publicity, corporate benefits for giving include boosting employee morale, said Ms. Kaplan.

Changes in tax laws also make it more advantageous for companies to make charitable donations, while an increased presence in foreign markets inspires more giving abroad, she said.

An annual survey by The Conference Board, a global research and business group, found a 500 percent increase in American corporate giving overseas from 1981-1992. Of the 50 to 150 companies that responded, median giving rose from $70,000 to $589,000 in that decade.

Gelber of UNICEF noted, however, that few companies have a presence in Rwanda, giving them little strategic reason to get involved. In his view, that’s an indication of a true wish to help for humanitarian reasons.

The largest surge of corporate giving came in July, after a burst of media coverage drove the crisis home for Americans.

The U.S. Committee for UNICEF, for example, raised $50,000 for Rwanda during May, June and the first half of July. In the last three weeks, giving shot up to $1 million.

In the four days following an unprecedented July 29 fax appeal to corporations, the committee also received $50,000 in corporate donations, along with other offers like Shawmut Bank’s.

″In general, corporate philanthropy in this country is self-serving, but ... in this instance, it’s a good pure sense of charity,″ he said. ″I think people are saddened by this tragedy.″

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