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“Has there ever been a better reason to shop?” asks an ad for the Product RED American Express card, telling members who use the card that buying “cappuccinos or cashmere” will help to fight AIDS in Africa. Cofounded in 2006 by the rock star Bono, Product RED has been a particularly successful example of a new trend in celebrity-driven international aid and development, one explicitly linked to commerce, not philanthropy. In Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World (University of Minnesota Press, March 2011), Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte offer a deeply informed and stinging critique of “compassionate consumption.”
The book examines the rise of a new modality of development financing: 'Brand Aid'. In Brand Aid, celebrities ask consumers to 'do good' by buying particular brands to solve a development problem. Brand Aid is 'aid to brands' because it helps sell branded products and improve a brand's ethical profile and value. It is also 'brands that provide aid' because a proportion of the profit or sales is devoted to helping distant others.
The Product (RED) initiative is the most advanced manifestation of Brand Aid to date. With aid celebrity Bono acting as the emotional sovereign, RED sells both the suffering of Africans with AIDS, and our power to ameliorate it, as effectively as selling computers, greeting cards or lattes. Companies such as American Express, Gap, Converse and Armani become the faces of ethical intervention in the world. Consumers are encouraged to do good by dressing well while part of the money they spend goes to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. RED provides a new mechanism for development finance that weds hard commerce with help, consumers with celebrities, and doctors with rockers.
Lisa Ann Richey is a professor of of Development Studies at the Institute for Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University in Denmark. Stefano Ponte is a Senior Researcher of Global Economy, Regulation and Development at the Danish Institute for International Studies.
Richey's primary research interests lie in international aid politics with particular attention to AIDS, reproductive health, and development technologies. Among other works, she is also the author of Population Politics and Development: From the Policies to the Clinics (2008) and the editor, with Frances Vavrus, of Women and Development: Rethinking Policy and Reconceptualizing Practice, a special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly (2003).
Ponte works with issues of international political economy and convention theory, with a specific emphasis on corporate and celebrity strategies as well as Africa and agro-food value chains. He is the co-author of Trading Down: Africa, Value Chains and the Global Economy (2005) and The Coffee Paradox: Global Markets, Commodity Trade and the Elusive Promise of Development (2005). He is also the co-editor of "Governing Global Value Chains," a special issue of Economy and Society (2008), and the author of Farmers and Markets in Tanzania: How Market Reforms Affect Rural Livelihoods in Africa (2002).
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