Africa Disempowe(red)

A few months ago, I was standing in line at the Gap when I overheard a mother talking to her young daughter. “Buying this shirt will help us to save Africans,” she said, smiling as she waved a child-size shirt that read “INSPI(RED)” across the chest. I wondered if this could possibly be true. We’ve all seen the ads for Product (RED)’s Gap t-shirt campaign: a celebrity stands against a neutral backdrop and stares at the camera, sporting a red t-shirt scrawled with fading letters reading “INSPI(RED),” or “DESI(RED),” or some such incarnation. The letters may be weathered, but the message is clear: buy this t-shirt to help to fight AIDS in Africa.

This formula seems almost too good to be true: you don’t have to change any of your normal habits, and you can help save Africans. On closer inspection, however, (RED)’s products and advertising campaigns may actually be perpetuating attitudes and beliefs that hinder the very people they purportedly help. Compare a Product (RED) Gap t-shirt to any of the other Gap products. The Product (RED) shirts have “exposed seams, unfinished edges,” and much thinner fabric that is faded, worn, and in some cases tattered. This contrasts starkly with the classic basics found in the Gap’s other products, which suggests that products representative of Africa must be of poorer quality, or falling apart.

(RED) explains on their website that they use the color red to signify that AIDS in Africa is an emergency. AIDS is, of course, a huge problem on the African continent, but the idea that “all of Africa” suffers from AIDS, or that AIDS afflicts Africa alone, is erroneous and misleading. By percentage, the top nineteen countries in terms of AIDS prevalence are in sub-Saharan Africa; by count, South Africa and Nigeria are followed by India. Clearly, the AIDS situation in many sub-Saharan African countries is the worst in the world in terms of prevalence, but other countries in Africa have prevalence rates even lower than that of the United States. However, (RED) sums up their business model succinctly on their website by having a picture of a Product (RED) iPod with an arrow pointing to cartoon of two red pills with an arrow pointing to a red African continent. Here the implication is that all of Africa, collectively, suffers from AIDS.

The (RED) campaign itself does recognize the global nature of AIDS by donating money to the Global Fund, whose funds are used to fight AIDS on other continents like South America and Asia. However, all of the marketing nevertheless focuses on Africa. This marketing decision coincides neatly with the words of Bono, (RED)’s founder, in a New York Times article about the campaign. “Africa is sexy,” he says, “and people need to know that.”

(RED)’s advertisements also encourage this sense of superiority of the West in comparison to Africa that the products create. A recent American Express ad shows supermodel Gisele Bündchen in a fashionable red dress next to Masai warrior Keseme Ole Parsapaet in traditional warrior dress; next to Gisele, lettering reads “MY CARD,” and next to Parsapaet, lettering reads “MY LIFE.” This sets up the juxtaposition that what is but a mere purchase to a Westerner is an African’s entire life, furthering a sense of Western superiority. This sense of power imbued by the products and advertisements for (RED) relegate people in Africa to the role of victims and elevate people in the West to the role of saviors.

But what is so wrong about this victim and savior dichotomy between Africa and the West? After all, aren’t we in effect saving Africans by helping them to access much needed medicine?

This form of marketing makes Africa’s problems seem more like a trend than anything else. The trendiness of Africa is unlike certain other ethnic, national or cultural trends because what is “trendy” about Africa is the act of saving it, as performed by campaigns like the (RED) Foundation. As Michael Beran, a lawyer and writer in the field of African aid, wrote “paternalism persists as a psychology precisely because it satisfies the cravings of vanity in a way that real reform doesn’t. (Where people have learned to save themselves, they do not need saviors.).”

In no way should AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere be trivialized, but the branding of AIDS as an uniquely African problem that affects the whole continent is problematic. As Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina argues, the depiction of the continent as one giant crisis, a place of emergency that is perpetually tattered like the (RED) products suggest, ignores the progress of that many Africans are making on their own. Stock exchanges now thrive in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana due to measure taken by citizens of these countries. Such self-motivated enterprise does more to increase wealth than any aid can.

Helping individual people in countries like South Africa and Lesotho seems—and is—great, but the problem with adopting (RED)’s paternalist approach is that it ignores the history of aid to Africa and also prevents true change. The approach of (RED) is to simply raise money—the cure for AIDS in Africa itself comes later. However, this approach fails to examine the underlying causes and structures that create the disease and poverty that many people in these countries face. As NYU economist William Easterly observes, “The response of the West to Africa’s tragedy has been constant throughout the years.” A constant response that has constantly been to donate more and more money. All told, $568 billion in foreign aid has gone to Africa over the last four decades, but between 1990 and 2001 the average daily income actually fell from 62 to 60 cents and 46 percent of the continent continues to live below the ordinary poverty line. In order to actually reduce disease and poverty on the African continent, people need to address what creates these problems: corrupt leadership modeled on colonial governments, lack of infrastructure, and increasing debt due to foreign loans.

Not only does the paternalistic approach to aid which is endorsed by the ways (RED) is marketed and the look of the products themselves fail to interrogate the underlying causes of the AIDS epidemic it also endorses, as Wainaina notes, the victim-savior and child-parent relationship that distorts Africans’ idea of themselves and their potential. People in Africa should not be viewed as victims and children that can be saved by the superior West, but rather as agents who affect change for themselves and by themselves. (RED)’s products and advertising do not reinforce the idea that people in Africa can help themselves, but rather through the power of the wonderful and benevolent Western consumer-capitalist system, we can save Africans.

For all the problems that already exist in sub-Saharan Africa, these ad campaigns create more problems than solutions. If individuals in the West want to truly create long-term improvements and help to fight disease, it won’t be as easy as buying a (RED) iPod. We must discard notions of “saving” and replace them with ideas of cooperation and mutual support—and this may mean undertaking the hard, ungratifying, unglamorous work of analyzing underlying causes instead of getting enough celebrities together to raise even more money by peddling accessories you can wear out of the Gap.