coca-cola-art_coke_bottles4Every day brings more bad news about business and corporate leadership: A ninth Georgia bank fails. Anger mounts over the arrogance of AIG and the Madoff scandal. People groan that the “customer service” of days gone by has become the lack of service of today.

As I walk around my community taking notes, the stories tumble out of my neighbors. They have grown wary of business leadership in general, and the bigger the business the greater their disdain. Used car dealers can take heart. At least, now they are held in higher regard than many CEOs.

Even people who still want to believe in capitalism have begun to despair. The strongest believers among them — including a friendly stock broker I bump into from time to time — thirst for some evidence that corporate leaders at least want to act responsibly.

But even in this growing darkness, occasional candles are lit. All corporations act in their own self-interest, but, occasionally, a major corporation demonstrates a measure of enlightenment about what true self-interest might be.

One encouraging sign came with the recent announcement by Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. that it is trying to do something right: help provide safer drinking water to communities throughout Africa. According to a Coke news release, the company will pour $30 million into a Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) that “will provide at least 2 million Africans with clean water and sanitation by 2015.”

“Africa’s water crisis threatens the health of its population and, therefore, its prospects for economic growth,” Muhtar Kent, Coke’s president and CEO said in the release. “Communities need strong, healthy people to thrive, and our business needs strong, healthy communities to grow and be sustainable.”

Yes, business sense does still exist. And Coke’s program, while not in itself a solution to a shameful problem, is a solid step in the right direction.

Lack of safe drinking water is a major concern not only in Africa but globally. More than a billion people around the world don’t have access to safe water, the World Health Organization says. Annually, 1.6 million people die because of bad water, lack of sanitation and poor hygiene. The vast majority — 1.4 million — are children under 5 who die from diarrhea.

Yet, as crises go, providing access to safe water is among the easier problems to solve. Governments, corporations, non-profit organizations and donors, big and small, just need to demonstrate the will and commitment to take on the job.

In Africa, WHO says, more than 300 million people now lack access to safe drinking water. At any given time, up to half of those people might suffer from diseases related to unsafe water and poor sanitation.

The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation already has water projects in 19 African countries, helping to improve the lives of more than 300,000 people. Under the new initiative, Coke will expand its support of healthy watersheds and community water programs, make its own water use more efficient, and improve its recycling programs to ensure that water used for manufacturing purposes is returned to the environment at a level that supports aquatic life and agriculture.

Saving the life of even one child is a noble cause. If Coke’s program succeeds in providing clean water for 2 million people, the company could rightly revive one of its old slogans.

Maybe, it’s true. Things really do go better with Coke.

And, maybe, some other corporate leaders will take the hint. Rather than create problems for others to solve, they could demonstrate their commitment to becoming part of the solution.

Thanks for a little good news, Coke. We need that.

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Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at http://tartantambourine.com/