NEWSMAKER: Baby versus the giant - Patti Rundall, Policy director, Baby Milk Action

Lucy Maggs

Patti Rundall should be in Canada at an international meeting about food standards but because of the Sars virus outbreak in Toronto, her husband has persuaded her not to go.

"I feel pathetic," she says. "I won't feel better until I know everything has gone alright, it should have been cancelled. You shouldn't have to go through a mini-divorce with your husband over a meeting."

Rundall, however, certainly isn't pathetic. Baby Milk Action only has two full-time and two part-time staff members, but is managing to lead the charge against one of the largest corporations in the world. "You have to have a certain amount of front for this job," she says. "I haven't been frightened of anything since I was 12."

She first became involved with Baby Milk Action through a friend she met at a babysitting circle. The friend was involved with War on Want and had become concerned about the companies involved in producing formula milk for infants and the way it was being marketed to mothers. "Women have been made to think that it is common not to be able to breast feed," she says. "I'm not out to force every woman to breastfeed, I'm trying to make sure they understand about infant feeding and how companies work."

Inspired by her neighbour, she went to a War on Want meeting with her husband. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing," she says.

Since then Rundall has been relentlessly fighting for the cause, running the fledgling organisation voluntarily for many years. "We had absolutely no money," she says. "It was a matter of War on Want will lend us the photocopier, someone else will let us use the phone. But the message I have carried with me is that this type of action is not dependent on money. Many of the best movements in the world are driven by public outrage, not because someone has written a funding proposal."

As the movement grew, Rundall found she could no longer fit her campaigning work around her teaching, but couldn't afford to give up her salary. The organisation managed to raise some funding from War on Want, Save the Children and Christian Aid: all organisations supporting the cause but which are restricted in their campaigning activities due to their charitable status. At present, Baby Milk Action receives one-third of its funds from charities and also raises money from the public through membership fees and sales of products such as T-shirts and badges. But raising money from the public has been difficult. "They may boycott Nestle, but the last thing people think about is giving money. We do have long-term supporters, though, so it's a question of time and locating the right people. Unlike some charities, we don't have the pictures of starving children and we don't run a service."

The organisation did receive European Commission funding for a number of years, but this has stopped this year, meaning Rundall has had to reduce her role to three days a week.

One thing the organisation will not do is accept any kind of corporate funding. "We will never compromise on this funding policy, all our money must be completely independent in order for us to achieve our goals," she says. "It is a big privilege that we don't have to be constantly looking over our shoulders."

Baby Milk Action has frequently criticised other charities for accepting money from Nestle, including heavy hitters such as the Red Cross. Rundall believes that voluntary organisations must carefully consider the implications before accepting money. "Charities must act with due diligence and make sure that corporates are not working against them," she says.

Although she is concerned about voluntary organisations accepting donations from Nestle, she is aware that turning down large amounts of money is a difficult decision for any trustee to make. "All we say to people is please meet us first and then we will tell them the truth about Nestle."

In the past, it has often been charity staff members who have approached Baby Milk Action when a donation has been made that they are uncomfortable with, by which time though Rundall feels it is often too late. "We get a lot of information sent to us in brown envelopes," she says.

The organisation has, in recent years, been involved in a number of public debates with Nestle, which Rundall argues it has won hands down. But she is concerned that companies will always use their relationships with charities to show them in a positive light. "Organisations engaging with companies are on dangerous ground. We shouldn't be talking about partnerships, it's not a dialogue of equals. NGOs must evaluate the downside, if a company is talking to or working with a charity, does that make people think that company is OK?"

However, she firmly believes in the effectiveness of shareholder action.

Baby Milk Action holds shares in Nestle in order to attend its annual general meeting and cause a stir. "It's good publicity and a chance for the shareholders to hear what's going on'" she says.

Rundall adds that Baby Milk Action's campaigning work is ongoing and there is still a lot of ground to cover. According to charity's statistics, 1.5 million babies die each year because they are not breastfed. But she says that despite the enormity of the challenge, the fight will continue.

"It's extremely satisfying work, but I would stop if I became jaded," she says. "Corporations are a major problem that we have to deal with."

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