U2 rock star and humanitarian Bono has come in for some recent criticism. According to Advertising Age (registration required), his (RED) campaign has spent upward of $100 million on advertising to produce a mere $18 million for the Global Fund to support African AIDS programs.
A little more than a year ago, Bono and Bobby Shriver launched the (RED) campaign in London. It would go on to attract attention (and advertising) from such media elites as Steven Spielberg, Chris Rock, and Oprah Winfrey, while attracting sponsorships from AOL and MySpace. It created quite a buzz: Ads were all over the place and the world would be changed.
The idea was simple: new lines of consumer goods¯all from the trendiest companies, Gap, Giorgio Armani, Motorola, Apple iPod¯would be launched with the (RED) logo. When you bought one of these products, the company would give a fraction of the proceeds to the Global Fund. The (RED) Manifesto put it simply: “You buy (RED) stuff. We get the money, buy the pills and distribute them . . . . If they don’t get the pills, they die. We don’t want them to die. We want to give them the pills. And we can. And you can. And it’s easy. All you have to do is upgrade your choice.”
By “upgrade your choice,” they meant buy their products. “You, the consumer, can take your purchase to the power of (RED) simply by upgrading your choice. Thus the proposition: (YOU)RED. Be embraced, take your own fine self to the power of (RED). What better way to become a good-looking samaritan?!”
Buying overpriced luxury items¯the true meaning of the Parable of the Good-Looking Samaritan. Anyway, it’s been a year now, and the results seem poor. Unhappy with the Advertising Age report, the CEO of (RED) issued a public response . It makes some valid points: The money was going to be spent on product advertising anyway, so we might as well raise awareness about AIDS in Africa and raise some money at the same time. Certainly the sick in Africa aren’t sneering at the $18 million. For many, it has been the difference between life and death.
But there is something wrongheaded¯even repulsive¯about the approach. Turning the life-and-death plight of an entire continent into just another advertising strategy. Making charitable giving a matter of satisfying consumerist desires. Attempting to solve African need by Western greed.
It reminded me of one of Bono’s earlier endeavors: the ONE Campaign . Bono titled this “the campaign to make poverty history.” Its strategy was simply to rally Americans to call upon President Bush to allocate one additional percentage point of the U.S. budget to fighting extreme poverty across the globe.
Surprisingly, they never ask for any direct contributions : “ONE isn’t asking for your money, we’re asking for your voice. ONE does not accept donations. Instead, we hope that you’ll take action with ONE by contacting Congress, the President and other elected officials and ask them to do even more to fight global AIDS and extreme poverty. We encourage you to sign the ONE declaration and help by spreading the word about the ONE Campaign by talking about it with your friends, family and co-workers. Additionally, you can show your community that you support ONE by purchasing ONE merchandise on our website.”
Just sign our petition! Just call President Bush! Wear our wristband! That’s all it takes to make poverty history! You don’t even need to give a dime!
What a bizarre method. Why not appeal to our consciences directly and ask every American to donate 1 percent of our personal budget to the poverty-fighting charity of our choice? The ONE Campaign made significant inroads with the religious communities ¯having them demand more from the government. Why not ask for a tithe? Why not call for personal contributions instead of political noise-making?
But that would require sacrifice. And that wouldn’t sell. Nor would it be trendy. It’s so much easier to say we can fight AIDS by buying Armani and Gap. It’s so much easier to say we’ll end world poverty by telling Congress to do something about it. My “good-looking” “fine self” sleeps so much better at night knowing that my (RED) purchase has bought pills for someone in Africa, that my signature on the ONE declaration means I’ve done my part.
Many people got fed up with this. They thought it was just an attempt to ease our consciences about being so well off. To give until it feels good, not until it hurts.
So they started their own group: Buy (LESS) Crap! Their campaign slogan? “Shopping is not a solution. Buy less. Give more.” The co-creator of the site, Ben Davis, had this to say: “The Red campaign proposes consumption as the cure to the world’s evils. Can’t we just focus on the real solution¯giving money?” The idea of personal sacrifice with direct contributions is certainly appreciated, but I think this, too, misses the “real solution.”
Giving money will never be the focus of the real solution. This simplistic view assumes that Africa’s only ailment is material lack. But this is to mistake the symptom for the cause. A materialistic understanding of the causes of poverty¯at home and abroad¯will never suffice. Real answers need to address culture and its institutions.
The Kenyan economist James Shikwati made headlines a year ago when he pleaded: “For God’s Sake, Please Stop the Aid!” He wasn’t going for shock value. He meant it. Billions of dollars had been poured into Africa over the previous forty years, and the continent was no better for it. In fact, he pointed out, the countries given the most aid were the worst off. And the foreign aid, he argued, was to blame.
Aid further corrupted the countries’ leaders. Once they got food and money from NGOs, they used it to retain and increase their power, keeping their people dependent on them. The foreign subsidized food and goods kept local farmers and industry unable to compete¯and perpetually stuck in primitive development. The entire continent’s growth was stunted: Continuous dependence on foreign support discouraged the domestic industrial and institutional development that would lead Africa out of poverty.
Shikwati isn’t alone. Recently, NYU economics professor William Easterly made a similar point in his book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good . Chronicling the failure of the past half-century of aid, Easterly reminded the reader that the $2.3 trillion of Western aid has produced embarrassing results.
Regardless of whether foreign aid caused, and continues to cause, these problems, one thing is clear: Monetary aid will never be able to solve Africa’s problems until institutions that foster individual and collective enterprise flourish. Transparent governance, the rule of law, and market economies are necessities. As long as governmental corruption, misplaced market incentives (through subsidies), and institutions of repression rule the day, no amount of money will change a thing.
Money, technical know-how, medicines, and all sorts of material goods can only do so much without the necessary political, legal, and economic institutions. But it is even more important that cultural institutions rise to the challenge of inculcating the personal virtues required for self-sufficiency, self-governance, and economic growth: honesty, integrity, fair play, hard work, thrift, investment, creativity. The entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with moral backbone, is the only way Africa will lift herself out of poverty. Helping Africa enter commercial society is foundational. As John Paul II put it in his encyclical Centesimus Annus , it is “necessary to help these needy people to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources.” Until these institutional and personal changes are made, the (RED) and ONE and Buy (LESS) Crap! campaigns will founder. Money isn’t the real solution; changing hearts and minds and habits is.
Of course, this requires personal attention, major time commitment, and serious mentoring. It means sacrifice and suffering on the parts of those who will help. The work is being done, but it doesn’t receive Bono’s media attention. It’s largely being performed by Christians volunteering their lives to help Africans become self-sufficient. They need funding and support; money does play a role. But knowing which organizations are doing the necessary work, and which are merely compounding the problem, is hard to discern. And it can be frustrating for one who wants to help.
Some have been critical of Global Fund in particular, others of large global funds in general. Marvin Olasky, after spending time in Africa chronicling AIDS work in Namibia and Zambia resulting from direct partnerships between American churches and Africans, said he was “a little skeptical of global funds and disbursements from those funds to governmental and U.N. organizations . . . . We need to find more ways to have thousands of small groups do more than merely giving money to large groups.”
The problem with these large global funds parallels the problem of statist solutions that Benedict XVI noted in his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est :
The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person¯every person¯needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone”¯a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.
In many cases there is no “real solution,” but only a response: love.
For my part, I won’t be buying any (RED) products or urging President Bush to commit ONE percent to African relief. But I know I can’t sit idly, either. This Lenten season provides the opportunity to reexamine my spending, giving, and volunteering habits. Domestically, I know which organizations are doing the work that I think makes a difference. I try to support them; I know I could do more. To be honest, though, I’m not sure which international organizations are doing the work on the ground that will help make the lasting changes that Africa needs. Inadvertently, Bono has drowned out their voices.
Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things .