GSO Commentary — An action plan for outreach to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and the informal economy in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa

Summary of a Planning Group Discussion on HIV/AIDS and Social Responsibility.
Geneva, Switzerland

A meeting of the GSO Planning Group was convened at the ILO on 19 July to develop an action plan for outreach to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and the informal economy in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Participants represented international organizations, NGOs, trade associations, and individual companies.

As was recognized in the GSO roundtable event dedicated SMEs and the Informal Sector on 31 May, the overwhelming majority of people afflicted with and most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS are employed in the informal economy, i.e. outside formal or organized economic structures. In the African countries in question, this sector has been estimated to account for up to 75% of non-agricultural employment.  The Planning Group discussed major existing initiatives targeted at the workers in this sector and considered where there were “gaps” in these programs.  Although there was concern about outreach to SMEs as well, the group recognized that the two groups were distinct entities, having disparate requirements with respect to assistance.  A wide array of existing toolkits are directed to SMEs, but very little material or information is available on how to reach people in the informal economy.  The participants recommended that the action plan focus on outreach to the informal sector, with an emphasis on the informal economy in African countries.

The plan will address a number of particular issues, including funding, capacity-building, education and advocacy, prevention, treatment and access to health, stigma and other legal issues and the investment climate.  Opportunities will be explored for specific pilot projects in targeted African countries.  The group will present a draft of the action plan for debate and adoption at a GSO planning group meeting in Geneva September.  A follow-up roundtable will be convened in October to evaluate the effectiveness of the action plan and pilot projects.  A report with recommendations will then be made for presentation at the ICASA meeting in December.

Existing Initiatives

Amongst the existing initiatives discussed by the group were the ILO/AIDS’ work on a draft set of guidelines for SMEs currently under development and a separate and broader initiative by the ILO’s Social Protection Sector on a handbook for the informal sector.  Another ILO unit, the Small Enterprise Support and Development Unit (SEED), has also prepared a toolkit on business development services for SMEs which could be developed to include an HIV/AIDS component.  The IOE reported that they are working with SEED on this project, but they themselves have also prepared a toolkit specifically for their members (national employers’ associations) on HIV/AIDS.  Other products directed at SMEs mentioned by the group included toolkits put together by GTZ, as well as a series of country papers by Merck that have a section dedicated to SMEs.   The ILO conducted a review of existing kits prior to embarking on its own toolkit exercise, and it offered to share the results of this study with other members of the Planning Group.

The IOE described its members’ struggle to understand what drives or keeps businesses in the informal economy, along with their ultimate conclusion that assisting companies in this sector was consistent with their corporate interests.  Key elements in the latter respect are commitments to formalization of the informal sector along with the creation of an enabling business environment.  More generally, there was widespread concurrence that HIV/AIDS programs, irrespective of their target audience, should not have a deleterious effect on the investment climate.  A lot of concern was expressed about developing products that were in fact beneficial to investment in the targeted sector, whether it is SMEs or the informal sector.

The group went on to a discussion about how SMEs and the informal sectors were distinct groups, each having unique requirements with respect to assistance.  It was agreed that a wide array of existing toolkits are directed to SMEs but that very little material or information is available on how to reach people in the informal economy.  More efforts need to be devoted to understanding the “gaps” in these programs.  Following this discussion, the planning group agreed that the focus of the GSO action plan should be limited to filling the gaps specifically on outreach to the informal sector and not, for the time being, on outreach to SMEs.

Developing the Action Plan

The group then reviewed the possible components of an action plan, including the extent to which it should be an “umbrella plan” versus a plan oriented to concrete examples.  The consensus was reached to combine the two as much as possible.  The emphasis should be on mobilizing public/private partnerships for action against HIV/AIDS through bridging to the informal sector, whether by large MNEs or SMEs or other entities.

The group then agreed that there was some urgency in conducting a mapping exercise of existing initiatives.  Several participants agreed to share their existing materials, and the ILO agreed to conduct a survey of its African members to gather additional materials.   The action plan would then incorporate this existing knowledge and identify issues for further research and analysis.  A better understanding was needed of the nature of the informal economy encompassing such issues as funding, capacity-building, education and advocacy, prevention, treatment and access to health, gender, stigma and other legal issues, and the changing nature of the investment climate.  Questions to be answered include:  Who is a recipient?  Who is a service provider?  What services exist in the informal economy?  What is the incidence of HIV and AIDS?  Should specific sectors be targeted?   The action plan will also identify a number of African countries for targeted pilot project development and will consult with local representatives of organizations that are oriented to working with the informal sector in these countries.

Available Resources

As regards the implementation of any plan that might be agreed, Katherine Hagen referred to her discussions with the Geneva International Academic Network, a local research program funded by the Federal Government of Switzerland, along with the Canton of Geneva.  The purpose of this initiative is to promote research oriented cooperation between local academic institutions and the international organizations.  The ILO and the Graduate Institute of International Studies have expressed an interest in cooperating with the GSO to organize a GIAN-funded project relating to the action plan under discussion.  GIAN would provide funding to cover the costs of two or three interns assigned to conduct academic research on specific topics in support of the action plan, as well as the travel costs of developing country participants in any multi-stakeholder events that might be scheduled.  Unfortunately, however, they cannot meet the costs of the time that regular GSO staff might put into the initiative.
A representative from the World YWCA said that her organization currently had 3 interns whose time could be devoted to the implementation of the action plan under discussion.  Similarly, an intern from Merck reported that her employer was in agreement with her being seconded to the project.

A website to enable communication between project participants would be set up and maintained by the World Bank.  The Bank was also willing to introduce links from private sector pages on its HIV/AIDS country pages to any toolkits that might be appropriate for use in a given national setting.

Conclusion and Next Steps

GSO will prepare a TOR for the development of an action plan and supporting research products.  The planning group agreed on the timeline as noted below.  The project will get underway as quickly as possible, with recruitment of interns and collection of available information to occur in August.   Research projects will be developed on specific related issues, and a draft action plan will be prepared by early September.  An agenda for the October roundtable will also be worked up and a preliminary list of participants will be identified.

The planning group will get back together in mid-September to review the draft action plan and progress on the supporting research products.  The revised materials will then be presented to a broad multi-stakeholder group of interested parties in a roundtable event in Geneva in October.  The roundtable agenda will include opportunities to discuss the specific research projects, as well as for debate and approval of a revised action plan.   Participants at the October roundtable will include the representatives of local organizations in the selected African countries.  These participants will be invited to identify how they and their respective organizations might support the action plan and proposed pilot projects.  A report will then be prepared of the roundtable discussion and revised action plan for presentation at the ICASA meeting in Abuja, Nigeria in December.