Tackling Global Problems with Brand Aid

When you are trying to change the world for the better it can help to distinguish between the more immediate causes of the problem you are tackling and the larger structural ones. More immediate causes of poverty, ill health and deprivation might include things like land loss, redundancy, unsafe sex or food price increases. The longer term structural causes of these problems include things like inequality, labour relations, trade relations, debt and the values and attitudes that sustain racism, sexism and diverse hatreds. So damaging are these structural forces to people that we can call them forms of structural violence.

Tackling global problems has to deal with both the symptoms and causes. But dealing with symptoms only, without planning when and how to tackle the drivers of the problem is not adequate. One of the distinguishing features of the work of celebrity in development is the tremendous creative energy which is devoted to coming up with innovative ways to tackle global problems. They can, potentially, be powerful, game changing initiatives. The crucial question to ask is what are they changing – the rules of the game, the more structural causes of problems, or merely some of their consequences? If the latter, when and how will they take in the bigger issues.

Product (RED) is an initiative Bono launched to support the work of the Global Fund. It works by getting leading Brands (Nike, Apple, Gap) to launch specific products and lines, a proportion of the profits of which go to the Global Fund. Its raised $160 million as of December 2010, which is a lot of money, although less than 1% of the $18.2 billion given to the Global Fund over the years. The Global Fund provides support for the work of fighting HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. Product (RED)’s funds go directly to high performing HIV/AIDS programmes in Africa such that people buying RED products can calculate exactly how many anti-retroviral (ARVs) pills their purchases are providing.

Lisa Richey and Stefano Ponte have just published Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World with the University of Minnesota Press. This book is an immensely readable, lively and edgy examination of the work of Product (RED), and its consequences for HIV/AIDS sufferers and the some high profile brands. I write this blog having just returned from the 2011 meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) where we discussed the book at an authors-meets-critics session.

Lisa and Stefano explore every aspect of Product (RED) – indeed it is perfectly suited for them as Lisa studies celebrity and health care delivery (esp HIV/AIDS) while Stefano works on certification, commodity chains and corporate social responsibility. They bring a good deal of prior learning and expertise to the book. They note that Product (RED) certainly delivers valuable ARVs to people who need them, that it does not peddle negative imagery of Africa and Africans, and it also neatly sidesteps the debates raging about the efficacy of aid.

They also have some rather telling criticisms. First, the Global Fund does not get involved with broader health care delivery systems; yet the success or otherwise of ARV treatment hinges on the broader social and institutional contexts in which people are taking the pills. Certainly there can be Lazarus effects but what sustains these effects, or makes them possible in the first place? Another way of putting this is that getting ARVs to people is a really good thing to do, but we cannot believe that it is sufficient in and of itself. The Product (RED) marketing encourages that belief.

Furthermore they argue that the forms of corporate social responsibility that are being practiced by the brands involved in Product (RED) are of the distant and disengaged variety. There is not much transparency, for example, with respect to which companies have donated how much to Product (RED). They also trace a shift from conscious consumption to ‘Causumer culture’. The former, promoted by certified and fair trade products, tries to ‘make visible the ecological and social relations embedded within a commodity’ (Raynolds, 2007: 50). The latter does not make these relations visible but relies on celebrity endorsement and corporate marketing to convince consumers they are doing a good thing. (The ‘Making Luxury Count’ site provides many other examples of this sort of practice.)

Initiatives like Product (RED) are hard to dissect and this book does a pretty comprehensive job in a way which is accessible to all sorts of readers. I felt there were three voices which were not so much missing from this book (it can only be so big) but which now need to be heard in debates about Product (RED). They are:

  1. People taking ARVs in Africa. What do they make of this initiative, the drugs and the health systems of which they are part?
  2. Public Figures. The authority of Product (RED) derives from the standing of Bono, Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Farmer, what do they make of these criticisms of schemes which they have supported so strongly?
  3. Consumers buying RED products. It may be hard to work out the social and ecological relations bound up in RED products, but what does this sort of purchasing do for consumers’ own personal journeys of awareness, consciousness and, potentially, activism?

But I think that the most telling points were raised by Dan Klooster in his commentary on the book at the AAG. What, he asked, are the opportunity costs of the sorts of problems that Lisa and Stefano raised? If money is being raised from the purchases of a group of consumers who are not anyway thinking particularly reflectively about their purchasing power then what does it matter that these particular forms of CSR are relatively weak? And, he noted, Bono does say that death is more important than labour issues, but hasn’t he got a point? Given that Darnton’s work shows that there are groups of people who care very little about aid or poverty might not initiatives like Product (RED) be a good way of taking from the (uncaring) rich and giving to the poor.

Brand Aid then creates the space for three important questions:

  1. How do initiatives like Product (RED) effect consumer journeys into awareness and activism?
  2. How do these initiatives affect corporate journeys into awareness, activism and engaged CSR?
  3. Depending on the nature of these personal and corporate journeys, in what circumstances do any deficiencies in the scheme matter?

Why are these questions important? Because of the importance of tackling structural violence and not merely its consequences. Any solution to major problems which fails to challenge, or plan to challenge in the future, the structural violence underlying them can only be a temporary sticking plaster. Anything which claims to solve the problem while actually reinforcing its root causes is obscene – it makes us feel good about doing bad.

It has to be clear, therefore, that Product (RED), which encourages people to carry on as they were, just shop more, is in the process also challenging, or planning to challenge, the forms of structural violence that lie at the root of the problems it is trying to address. Lisa and Stefano argue that there are issues to address with Product (RED) but we need to see how these problems play out in diverse journeys to (and from) activism, and what, if any, harm is done by any deficiencies.



Laura Raynolds. 2007. ‘Organic and Fair Trade Movements in Global Food Networks.’ In S. Barrientos and C.Dolan (eds) Ethical Sourcing in the Global Food System. Earthscan London.


About Dan Brockington

Researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
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