Mining companies must dig deep in the fight against Ebola

Mining giant Rio Tinto, which has operated in Guinea for 50 years, has donated just US$100,000 to the UN Ebola fund. EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

The current outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa shows no signs of halting. More than 4,500 people have died and many thousands more are infected. Despite the creation of a new United Nations mission to tackle Ebola and commitments of thousands of western military personnel to help combat the disease, the virus is still “winning the race”.

In September, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the international community to donate US$1 billion to help fight Ebola. Yet one month later, despite dire predictions that we could see 10,000 cases a week by December and 1.4 million cases by January 2015, the UN has received less than 40% of the funds needed.

While the main focus is on what governments are or are not doing, the role the corporate sector can play in the current crisis has received very little attention.

Is the mining sector doing enough to fight Ebola?

With six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies in Africa and rich mineral resources that include major iron ore deposits, the region has attracted considerable foreign investment over the past decade from some of the world’s largest resources companies.

Yet while such companies continue to promote their corporate social responsibility credentials, the response to the current Ebola crisis has been utterly inadequate.

For example, according to the UN Financial Tracking Service, Rio Tinto, which operates two mines in Guinea and boasts that it has worked in Guinea for more than 50 years, has donated just US$100,000 to the UN Ebola Virus Outbreak – West Africa Appeal. Guinea remains one of three countries in the region most severely affected by Ebola.

In a statement obtained for this article, a Rio Tinto spokesman said the company had donated GNF$1.5 billion (US$220,000) to date to health organisations, including donating 10,000 prevention kits containing soap and chlorine for hand-washing, constructing latrines and conducting public awareness campaigns in the Guinean “sous-prefectures” of Boola, Beyla and Kouankan.

Rio Tinto has been mining in West Africa for 50 years. Alan Porritt/AAP

Another Australian resources company, BHP Billiton, which has mining operations in Guinea and Liberia, has donated a total of US$400,000.

The London Mining Company, which owns an iron ore mine in Sierra Leone that generated US$299 million in revenue in 2013, has claimed to be assisting with the construction of a 130-bed Ebola treatment facility. This assistance, though, equates to the loan of a surveyor and fuel to help clear the land – the actual construction of the facility will be “at cost” and operated by the United States and Irish governments.

Beyond this, in terms of financial contributions, the London Mining Company joined a consortium of businesses that collectively donated US$279,643, but independently the company has donated just US$122,100 to the UN Ebola Appeal.

Yet even these extremely modest contributions compare favourably to some Canadian-based firms such as Aureus Mining Inc, which has offered equipment (on loan) but has donated just US$30,000; while IMAGOLD has donated a mere US$35,000.

For their part, mining companies have stressed their efforts to protect employees and contractors, citing the initiation of public education campaigns and testing regimes underway at various operations.

However, the media focus has invariably been on how the Ebola crisis is affecting business, rather than asking what larger role these companies – many of which stress their ties to local communities – may make.

It seems clear that many of these companies see it primarily as a government role and their own as using influence to lobby. Aureus chief executive David Reading was one a number of senior resource company executives who co-signed a letter calling for a stronger global response to the crisis.

What about the rest of the corporate sector?

This contrasts to the efforts of other corporate donors. By any measure, the leading private sector contributor to the Ebola crisis has been the IKEA Foundation which, according to the UN, has donated over US$6.7 million to the Ebola Virus Outbreak - West Africa Appeal. This is followed by General Electric which has donated US$2 million, and Kaiser Permanente and GlaxoSmithKline, which have donated US$1 million each.

A number of other corporations have made either in-kind or cash donations to the UN Fund. Some of the companies that have donated cash include the Bridgestone Group (US$500,000), Coca-Cola (US$248,000), DuPont (US$250,000), and Exxon Mobile (US$225,000).

In-kind contributions have also been received from companies like the Chevron Corporation (ambulances), Ericsson (collecting donations), FedEx (shipping logistics), the McKesson Corporation (medical supplies), 3M (medical supplies), and the Shell Oil Company (petroleum and vehicles), among others.

The international community as a whole is failing to respond adequately to Ebola. EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

Time to step up

Certainly the UN has encouraged the corporate sector to donate resources, even publishing an Ebola Business Engagement Guide.

Multi-billion dollar corporations – those with the financial capacity to do much more – however, have been slow to respond. And without exception, even the contributions that have been made pale into insignificance against the contribution by the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, who personally donated US$25 million to combating Ebola.

In the meantime, the virus continues to spread. World leaders, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have expressed “bitter disappointment” at the international community’s lack of response. While much of the focus may appropriately be on governments, the corporate sector also has a responsibility to step up.

In launching a fresh campaign for funds, Ban Ki-moon recently declared:

This is not just a health crisis; it has grave humanitarian, economic and social consequences that could spread far beyond the affected countries.

Let’s hope the message is heard.