Tag Archives: UNICEF

Baby Milk Campaigns and Eastern Europe

In 1983 Oxfam ran a Baby Milk campaign, which aimed to challenge the promotion of artificial baby milk in poor countries and promote breastfeeding. This is a good example of the type of campaigns material which we are just starting to catalogue:

Front cover of Oxfam’s Baby Milk campaign leaflet (MS. Oxfam CPN/3/311, Bodleian Library)
Inside of Oxfam’s Baby Milk campaign leaflet (MS. Oxfam CPN/3/311, Bodleian Library)

Yet, in 1995 the Baby Milk Action Coalition (BMAC) was still campaigning on the same issue. Oxfam was a founding member of BMAC, a British group which was set up to monitor and coordinate a response to infringements of the WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (1981). From a series of project files in the archive, it is clear that Oxfam continued to financially support this group.

Baby Milk Action Update, Issue number 17, November 1995 (MS. Oxfam PRF EEG 011, Bodleian Library)

WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes

The WHO/UNICEF code was originally implemented to try and regulate advertisements for baby milk. This was because the percentage of women who breastfed in countries where baby milk was  heavily promoted and publicised, including by health care professionals, was much lower.

The code also highlighted the risks of using milk supplements, which were thought to be exacerbated by advertising. The most prominent of the risks are listed in the document below; it notably includes: contaminated water supply, illiteracy and poverty.

‘The Baby Food Controversy – John Clark March 1980’ (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Library)


Campaigns such as Oxfam’s and BMAC’s were launched to raise awareness of these issues and to highlight instances in which the code was not being upheld.

Eastern Europe

 There are various reasons why this issue had not gone away in the period between 1981 and 1995. The issue was re-surfacing in the mid-1990s due to the humanitarian situation in Eastern Europe. Ultimately, companies were ignoring the code. The following excerpts from documents in the BMAC project files allude to the difficulties surrounding the use, and promotion of, baby milk in the context of aid.

1. A note prepared for Stewart Wallis by C. Mears, dated 23.7.93 (MS. Oxfam PRF WGE 199 A5):

Breast milk substitutes are assuming a lot of importance currently because of the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Europe. Some aid agencies are sending breast milk substitute products apparently without due care.

 2. from MS. Oxfam PRF EEG 011’s application form, 1995:

Financial insecurity is forcing women to restrict maternity leave and return to paid work if they can. Also baby food companies have been able to establish themselves in the region and are promoting their products efficiently in a context of lack of awareness of the issues and possible risks.

 3. Memo from Dr. Mohga Kamal Smith (Health Policy Advisor, Policy Development Team) addressed to Tony Vaux, Head of Bureau (Eastern Europe), dated 3 May 1995:

I think there is a real danger in EE of declining breast feeding with the negative impact on children’s health and nutrition status. The time is crucial because now it is still not too late to reverse the tide if we to learn from other countries experiences of the difficulties of returning to breast feeding after establishing formulas and baby foods environment. 


‘From a true story, as reported by Dr. Elizabeth Hillman, from Nairobi’s Kenyatta National Hospital’. A cartoon prepared by US pressure groups but part of Oxfam’s ‘Baby Foods Campaign Pack’, 1980 (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Library)

To counteract these comments, there is an interesting memo, dated 25 June 1995, from Jovanka Stojsavljevic (Oxfam’s Representative for Former Yugoslavia), to Tony Vaux, Head of Bureau (Eastern Europe). This was her response to the project proposal above in point 2:

I do not think there is a real fear of commercial baby food companies being able to create a dependency on their products, as they did in the Third World. Nor do I think there is a desperate need to promote breast-feeding.

I think that this proposal and the approach of UNICEF here, is much more connected to their distinctive competence developed through their work in developing countries, rather than a detailed assessment of the problems for mothers within a society, w[h]ere the health care system is collapsing as a result of war, rather than a lack of awareness, expertise and knowledge.

‘Yugoslavia’ had quite an advanced health care system before the war and breast feeding was commonly upheld to be the best for the child. If anything, the problem was that women who could not breast feed felt they were ‘inadequate mothers’.

This is a revealing insight which demonstrates the conflict between global policy, such as the WHO/UNICEF code, and what is actually happening on the ground at the grassroots level in a particular region.

The debate surrounding breast feeding continues to be discussed today.