Last week the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which works to alleviate poverty and fight disease across the world, took a 3 per cent stake in the security company G4S.
The move was — inadvertently — a gift to human rights activists who campaign to expose G4S's support for oppressive regimes. The Gates Foundation's stake gives campaigners a prominent new target.
Like many companies, G4S deploys conspicuous philanthropy to enhance its public image. That's a risky strategy for a dominant player in the military and security business.
G4S, currently facing an inquest over the death of an Angolan detainee in the UK, builds classrooms for a foster home in Shanghai, runs a G4S-branded primary school for poor children in Delhi, supports a children's charity in Athens and supplies warm clothing to township children in Bloemfontein. (PDF)
They also boast to investors that the 'Arab Spring' helped G4S "gain visibility" among government security chiefs and "built the brand" in Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The contrast between its philanthropic work and its human rights record presents G4S with reputational risk. Pressure from human rights campaigners has already cost G4S contracts. That loss is measurable. Loss of charity support could prove more damaging, for good deeds brighten the corporate brand.
Last week, the charity War Child Holland said it would no longer accept sponsorship from the G4S. The charity aims to protect children from violence by offering psychosocial support and education.
In a conversation on Twitter with @hoterminus, War Child Holland said that its commitment to child rights meant it could not accept donations from a company that is “securing prisons where Palestinian political prisoners are held, possibly also children".
past December, two Dutch charities publicly announced their refusal to accept
future donations from G4S Netherlands, citing concerns about the company’s role
in Israel’s detention of Palestinian children.
The Food Bank in Utrecht, which provides food as emergency relief to people in need, instantly ended its cooperation with G4S in response to information provided by a blogger known as Sonja.
A few days later, Jantje Beton — which promotes free outdoor play for children — announced on its website that it had severed its relationship with G4S, its main sponsor. Jantje Beton said the decision was prompted by coverage of the relationship between G4S and security activities in Israeli jails. It was undesirable for Jantje Beton to cooperate with a sponsor that was associated with violations of child and human rights elsewhere.
Unwelcome publicity spiked earlier this month when protesters successfully disrupted the company's annual shareholders meeting in London. (There is a War on Want video of the protests here.) G4S had a very bad day in the media. The Financial Times and Reuters, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, the Independent, and the Irish Independent all reported on the disturbance.
That is not the kind of media attention G4S wants.
On Easter Saturday last year, in the run-up to the London Olympics, company spin-doctors celebrated the right kind of publicity.
The Financial Times Weekend Magazine gave up its front page and eight colourful inside pages to comedian Eddie Izzard and his adventure in Addis Ababa with the Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie. At the very end of the bright and happy story came the line: "Haile Gebrselassie is a mentor to the G4S 4teen programme, which is helping 14 young athletes achieve their ambition of competing at London 2012." G4S immediately hit Facebook to spread the good news.
G4S launched its sports project in 2007 to nurture 14 young athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds in some of the world's poorer countries. They include shooters from India and Bangladesh, a swimmer from Peru, a yachtsman from Guatamala, runners from Kenya, Nigeria and Botswana. (No Palestinian athlete has been chosen.) (PDF)
In an upbeat corporate video, the G4S group communications director Debbie Walker says: "It became fairly obvious early on that these young people were just so hungry for any help they could get."
The (recently departed) chief executive Nick Buckles chipped in: "When I first saw the idea I just thought it was great. It ticked all the boxes we could possibly look for." The film's highlight is a visit by Haile Gebrselassie and the teenage athletes to St Paul's children's home in Kenya. The young people and Haile lay bricks and play with the little orphans — all kitted out in G4S T-shirts.
"It's just this whole G4S wider family context," says Buckles in the film. "We do see we've got a broad role to play in developing markets, in developing societies, in developing families. It's all part of the broader G4S ethos."
Lately some charities have been deciding that they don't like the G4S ethos. They don't want the world's leading security company standing in their light. Activists are already plotting how to turn the Gates Foundation's investment to advantage. Decisions by small Dutch charities make little headlines. The Gates Foundation is a massive international brand.