Africa's poor had, like, the best week ever. Not since the days of khaki colonialism has buying Africa been so sexy, so fashionable. Early last week, Madonna and husband Guy Ritchie swooped into the village of Mphandula in Malawi and 13-month old David Banda. Price tag for this celebrity accessory du jour: $3 million to anti-poverty programs and $1 million to produce a documentary on the plight of Malawi's children, one million of whom are AIDS orphans (though little David is not; his father is very much alive and planned to reclaim the child until the Material Girl made an offer).
But don't worry, if an African baby is too pricey for you (and conjures up undesirable associations to Angelina Jolie or slavery), then you can buy Red instead. Launched this week in North America, Bono's campaign re-brands Motorola Rzr phones, Gap T-shirts, Armani sunglasses and Converse sneakers with the Product Red logo. Up to half of all profits will go to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS; a $199 Red Ipod Nano will, for example, lead to a $10 donation by Apple. Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Penelope Cruz, Christy Turlington, Chris Rock, Mary J. Blige and other celebrities have all endorsed the campaign. "Can a tank top change the world?" asks one Gap ad. In the U.K., where AmEx Red donates 1 percent of all purchases to The Global Fund, the question was simply "Has there ever been a better reason to shop?"
Call me a curmudgeon but ...Hello, hello? I'm at a place called vertigo. It's not that I think Bono's crusade has had a negative net impact on the fight against AIDS (though one could certainly make the case a la George Monbiot). And I'm not discouraging anyone who was already in the market for a $150 Gap denim jacket or Apple iPod from buying Red. If you really need one, you might as well kick back a few bucks so that someone in Africa can live. But spare me the fantasy that shopping till you drop somehow affects radical change.
The perniciousness of this corporate consumerism masquerading as activism was best represented by Bono's partner in the Product Red endeavor, Bobby Shriver of the Kennedy clan, who said to The New York Times:
"Gap in the beginning couldn't understand how they were going to make money. They wanted to do a T-shirt and give us all the money. But, we want them to make money. We don't want anyone to be thinking, 'I'm not making money on this thing,' because then we failed. We want people buying houses in the Hamptons based on this because, if that happens, this thing is sustainable."Aside from the sheer, murderous calculation involved (preserving the perception of corporate profitability at the cost of millions of dollars of charitable aid and thus at the cost of thousands of African lives), it's the whole notion that sustainability and success requires summer estates in the Hamptons that really rankles me.
Welcome to the gilded age of corporate empire, or what its leading citizen Bill Gates calls "frictionless capitalism." In this universe there are no states, no rights to health care, no trade policies and corporate welfare programs that keep Big Pharma the most lucrative industry going. In the place of anything resembling citizenship we have consumer choices, "innovation" and, above all, brand marketing, which is even now in Product Red being cast as some sort of corporate largesse. ("Isn't it so great that the Gap and Apple would submerge their own brand identity," glowed many a business page article). Shopping is sharing, and the unprecedented accumulation of wealth squares entirely with "ending poverty" — just ask Gates or Warren Buffet. In their world, fighting AIDS somehow never seems to query how Europe and the U.S. underdeveloped Africa and how the continent's abundant resources are still exploited by the world's wealthy.
And as this smart blogger points out, the AmEx board is stacked with former and current CEOs and directors of major Pharma companies who waged a genocidal campaign against the generic production of AIDS drugs. At 1 percent of AmEx Red profits, absolution comes cheap these days, don't it?
So what's an MP3-stealing, cell phone-addicted fashion follower like myself to do? Here's my DIY solution that still involves shopping and branding. A red Sharpie marker costs about a $1. Go get one and mark up something you already own. A giant red A will suffice, I suppose, but don't be afraid to stretch your imagination. Then send $198 (or $149 or whatever you can afford) to the Global Fund. Or if you prefer an organization that does political advocacy instead of direct service, try HealthGap at the Mobilization Against AIDS. You may not be wearing the hottest shade of red, but your contribution will be significantly larger and cleaner.
Click on the links below or send checks or money orders to:
United Nations Foundation Attn: Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria Dept. 344 Washington D.C. 20055-0344
Mobilization Against AIDS (insert "Health GAP" in memo line) 584 Castro Street, Suite # 416 San Francisco, CA 94114
By Richard Kim
Reprinted with permission from The Nation