Corporations mount major relief effort

Cash sent, goods pledged for victims of tsunamis

Hundreds of millions in aid

Executive: `Unprecedented for a natural disaster'

December 31, 2004|By Meredith Cohn, Lorraine Mirabella and Andrea K. Walker | Meredith Cohn, Lorraine Mirabella and Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

In the face of the staggering devastation wreaked by last weekend's tsunamis, many of the biggest and best-known global corporations are rushing to aid victims in the Indian Ocean countries in what is shaping up to be an unprecedented relief effort.

Businesses, including the world's pharmaceutical giants, oil companies, food conglomerates and retailers, are initially sending cash donations to the Red Cross and other aid organizations because supply routes have been disrupted. But they also pledged to send drugs, fuel, clothes and other supplies - many made in the hard-hit countries or with their resources - when possible. Airlines and shipping companies are shuttling goods and workers.

Merck & Co. has pledged $3 million to the Red Cross, UNICEF and several local agencies, and an undetermined amount of its drugs. Pfizer Inc. said it would give $10 million in cash to relief organizations and $25 million in medicines and health care products. And Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. said it gave $1 million to the Red Cross and will also offer its products. Combined, the aid from these companies alone surpasses the $35 million initially pledged by the United States.

"We're in touch with relief organizations and ministries of health to determine what is needed," said Anita Larsen, a spokeswoman for Merck. "The problem is that there is no system in place, and some of our medicines need refrigeration. We don't want fresh medicine sitting on a tarmac somewhere getting ruined."

Total figures of cash and in-kind donations are not yet tallied, but the amounts pledged are already in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

More is expected as companies file back to work in the new year and the impact of one of the worst natural disasters in decades is tabulated. The death toll, which exceeds 117,000, is still rising.

Relief agency officials and others said companies have different motives for donating. Some want to enhance their corporate image, especially if they have recently suffered a black eye. Some see it as a marketing tool, and others may want a tax-write-off. Still others are anxious to get back on its feet a part of the world they depend on for production, labor, materials and even sales.

New York public-relations guru Howard Rubenstein said an opportunity for some good PR was probably not the only motivating factor in the corporate outpouring.

"I think it's a humanitarian instinct," he said. "And the byproduct would certainly be good PR for the corporation, and more importantly for our country."

Welcome relief

No matter the reason, relief officials welcome the help.

"Corporations are very vital," said Dean Agee, vice president for advancement and communications of Spring Lake, Mich.-based International Aid. "It's because of the generosity of the corporations that we can do what we do. It's been unprecedented for a natural disaster."

Agee said 90 percent of the $3 million raised by the agency so far has come from corporations.

Dianne Sherman, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, based in Westport, Conn., said the group, which works in 40 countries including Indonesia and Sri Lanka, has raised $5 million in cash so far from all sources, including the drug company Pfizer Inc., toy company Mattel Inc., health care product seller Alticorp Inc. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set up by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Other companies have teamed up with their own groups.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. is contributing $100,000 to the United Children's Fund and is giving Huggies diapers, Kotex feminine products and Safeskin surgical gloves to local relief agencies.

The Dallas company has three manufacturing facilities in Thailand that produce everything from gloves, to diapers to tissues. It also has two plants in Indonesia and one in Malaysia, all unaffected by the tsunamis, to supply goods.

"These are everyday products that become very important to people on a daily basis," said spokesman Dave Dickson.

Other companies said they have yet to determine how to get supplies, even those already in the region, to needy people. Other essential items are on their way.

ExxonMobil has given $5 million in cash and donations of air transportation for medical personnel and supplies. BP PLC, which said it was still confirming the safety of its employees and the security of its facilities in the region, has donated $3 million to the Red Cross, Red Crescent, Oxfam and UNICEF relief groups. It has also been refueling emergency aircraft.

UPS, the global shipping company, which has planes, trucks and workers in place, is working with relief organizations to move supplies. FedEx plans to ship 200,000 pounds of medical supplies to several countries including Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Yesterday the shipping company flew $3 million in supplies from Michigan to Indonesia for International Aid, which will set up a portable health clinic that will treat 10,000 victims.

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