When I saw a story being posted on corruption in the Global Fund yesterday, I couldn’t help but remember this rant I wrote a few years ago. It’s directed more at the companies that gave money to the Global Fund, but I thought I would post it anyway.
This is an abbreviated version, as the original is eight pages long. I don’t usually apologize for or go out of my way to provide a disclaimer to my writing, but this is a rant and it was written at a time (October 2007) when I was still in my self-righteous human rights activist phase. The tone is therefore a bit preachy for my taste these days, but in the interest of letting my former, more naïve self still have a voice, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to edit too much. But I don’t necessarily still agree with everything I wrote here at the time.
Bewilde(red): A Polemic
Bewildered: Past tense of bewilder: verb. To confuse hopelessly, as by something complicated or involved.
2006: The Gap launches its “Red” campaign as a sponsor of (Product) Red. A company that was reviled by labor activists for much of the 1990s and early twenty-first century for its refusal to take responsibility for human rights and labor abuses committed under its watch now wants to help fight AIDS in Africa…
If someone is going to spend a gazillion dollars on a tee-shirt with the assumption that a large portion of the profits are going “to help people” with AIDS in Africa, it should be easy for that person to find out exactly what their money is doing besides giving them a shirt that shows they “care” while simultaneously paying for cheap subcontractors that violate basic human rights in order to make that shirt.
How does (Product) Red operate? Essentially, the participating companies, such as the Gap or Motorola, earmark specific products as “Red” and “contribute a portion of profits from the sale of [those products] to Global Fund-financed programmes in Africa.” The Global Fund is an international nongovernmental organization based in Geneva that more or less operates as a foundation. The organization is not a vehicle for implementation, but rather funds projects around the world that are aimed at combating HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. “Since 2001, the Global Fund has attracted US $4.7 billion in financing through 2008.” It has committed over US $1.5 billion in funding to support over 450 programs in 136 countries worldwide.
But there was little information on the Global Fund’s website that indicated whether the contributions from (Product) Red products were designated to particular programs. I couldn’t find any book-keeping type resources or budget breakdowns. One would assume that the Red funds go to the Global Fund’s AIDS programs as opposed to tuberculosis or malaria, and to programs in Africa as opposed to other parts of the world, because that’s the way it’s advertised, but the website did not specify. What I had wanted to find out was, generally, what the money goes to, and, specifically, what kind of programs that money is earmarked for. I wanted to know if there were specific kinds of treatments, say, for HIV, that the contributions funded, and if those treatments involved drugs, which kind of drugs, and from where.
It’s not that I am concerned with which disease the money is going to (in fact TB and malaria are probably under-funded), or that I think the Global Fund is a bad place for the funds to go, but I felt a bit disconcerted by the fact that (Product) Red products are advertised so aggressively to be benefiting AIDS programs in Africa, and yet I couldn’t find a simple sentence or two on the Global Fund’s website attesting to this. In international humanitarian aid, conditionality—even among smaller individual donors—is taken very seriously. If what I’ve learned about large humanitarian organizations is correct, then if even a $20 donation from a private individual is indicated to be for a specific program, that money can’t be used for anything else. So it was surprising to me that I was unable to find a statement on the Global Fund’s website that the contributions from “Red” went to particular programs.
Since most of this information was not immediately accessible from the website, I e-mailed the organization and asked them. The Fund responded that the proceeds from (Product) Red do indeed get channeled into AIDS programs in particular, specifically those focusing on women and children, and specifically in African countries. Okay. So you buy your Red product and part of the proceeds go to fund a project in poor poverty and disease stricken Africa, and yes it will probably help someone. It’s better than not giving at all.
Still, you must ask yourself: Does the “Inspi(red)” tee-shirt, the one made somewhere in Asia, or Latin America, or Africa, probably by an underage girl forgoing school and enduring abuse where she works—does your Inspi(red) shirt—the one that promises that your good intentions will be felt in the “developing world” through a generous contribution of the almost 100% profit that the Gap makes anyway through its use of indentured servitude and your purchase of it to help fight AIDS in Africa—make you feel satisfied that you are doing your part to “help other people”?
Why can a company like the Gap feel inclined to donate a large portion of a particular product’s profit to help people in Africa and yet not be inclined to do something similar to ensure that employees of its subcontractors are treated humanely and paid decently? The short, easier answer is PR. The Gap doesn’t care about helping other people. After all, “(Red) is not a charity. As its manifesto states, it is a business model.” And as King Leopold II would tell you himself if he could, a veneer of “helping other people” can be very good for business. But the longer, more difficult answer is more elusive.
It seems to me that in the United States and much of the “First World,” we’ve gone beyond Sartre’s liberal pacifist left being silent conspirators of colonialism or neocolonialism. Maybe even worse, or maybe not, depending on the way you look at it, we (“we” in the general Euro-American sense) aren’t even aware anymore of our role in cultural and economic imperialism.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that a “true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” This is how we should be thinking of the global economy and the international development aid framework.
In some ways, for all its merits, a preoccupation with humanitarian assistance and even “development” aid—although such aid is vital and invaluable—tends to distract people—not by accident, I think—from the fact that the reason you need humanitarian aid in the first place is because of global and regional imbalances of power and wealth and the legacies of colonialism and neocolonialism. As the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata put it, “there are no humanitarian solutions for humanitarian problems… Humanitarian action may create space for political action but on its own can never substitute for it.”
I started writing this essay because I was astounded at the success of the Gap’s (Red) advertising campaign walking around the campus of Yale in the fall of 2007. Every time I saw someone wearing one of those “Inspi(red)” shirts I became almost uncontrollably incensed, and I couldn’t even explain to myself why. I still don’t know what sort of conclusions I can draw here. At first it was merely the hypocrisy of the Gap that had me typing furiously away into a dim night in October. But as I started looking for answers to ameliorate my astonishment, I started thinking that something deeper is going on.
“Helping other people” is not like flinging a coin to a beggar, as MLK describes it. It is way more complex than that, and, even at that, insults the intelligence and wherewithal of the “beggar”, in my opinion. Why do we think of it as charity? Does the beggar not have a fundamental right to the help he needs to get to a point where he can take care of himself? Or is it too much for people, firms, companies, inter-governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and governments to become duty-bearers in that sense? And although the Jericho road may need to be transformed, whose responsibility is it to transform it? How should it be transformed? And whose input will be necessary in its transformation? We can’t expect people to drop everything and devote their lives to researching everything they buy. Consumers should be able to be consumers without worrying that they’re participating in a global economy dependent on slavery.
I think most Westerners are unaware that there is anything wrong with the road in the first place; that it is simply littered with unfortunate souls whose misfortune is totally disconnected from their own actions and choices. At the same time, simply not buying from the Gap would do little to transform much of anything, I don’t think. I’m still not sure what kind of conclusion to draw except that it annoys me that people think they are saving the world by buying a tee-shirt.
 See the Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, in Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004).
 Sadako Ogata, The Turbulent Decade: Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 25.