PoliticsSocial Issues

Philanthrocapitalism: The (RED) Campaign

Philanthrocapitalism, the idea of selling goods that double as charitable donations, has been a controversial subject in recent years. Campaigns or organizations, such as (RED), receive praise from the general public for supporting and resolving issues related to poverty, primarily in Africa or the global south. Philanthrocapitalism is the business model of companies attracting customers through compassionate consumerism which is based on the idea that a portion of the profit is going towards a charitable cause. Philanthrocapitalism is often accompanied by imagery of the “white savior” and “west is best” mentality. While this practice does have some benefits, these campaigns fail to account for the social determinants of health, oversimplify complex global issues and are predominantly used to enhance a company’s reputation. 

Philanthrocapitalism: Benefits, Limitations and Contradictions

There are two main benefits to philanthrocapitalism. First, it raises awareness of issues in less fortunate and unknown communities by linking consumers, primarily in the West, to communities on the other side of the world. Secondly, it raises capital for organizations which support interventions to resolve complex global issues such as providing clean water, food or medical supplies to impoverished communities. Despite these benefits, the limitations and contradictions of this practice cannot be overlooked.

Philanthrocapitalism: The (RED) Campaign

Product (RED) Partners 2017 (Source: The Global Fund)

In philanthrocapitalism campaigns, companies act as the mediator between the consumer and the cause. On the surface, companies heroically step in to succeed where traditional philanthropy and civil society have failed. In reality, these companies exploit issues, such as HIV/AIDS or in-access to clean water, bolster their public reputation and profit in the process. These campaigns imply that systemic change is achievable solely through capital and overlook the social determinants of health (SDOH). The SDOH are factors which influence an individual’s health and include race, gender, education, income and housing. By identifying SDOH, researchers can anticipate which individuals or communities are more at risk of contracting certain diseases and aim to control its spread. Additionally, there is a lack of transparency between companies and consumers regarding profits or the distribution of capital. By supporting these campaigns, consumers put forth the notion that convenience is more important than results when it comes to supporting charity. 

An Overview of the (RED) Campaign

The (RED) campaign accurately depicts the benefits and consequences of philanthrocapitalism and allows corporations rather than the recipients of the aide, individual donors, or political leaders to decide where and how charitable dollars are spent.

Since its formation in 2006 by co-founders U2 singer Bono and activist Bobby Shriver, the (RED) campaign has become a model for philanthrocapitalism. Brands associated with (RED), such as Apple or the Gap, advertise exclusive (RED) labelled products in which up to 50% of the profits from those product sales can be donated to the Global Fund. The Global Fund invests the proceeds into improving HIV/AIDS health in communities within Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia. While this seems promising, neither (RED) or its partners are transparent about the exact percentage of the profit which is donated towards the Global Fund or their total contributions. The New York Times reports that (RED) contributions make up only 1.7% of the funding for Global Fund. 

The (RED) website claims to have raised 475 million USD to date. A report by AdAge found (RED) claimed to have raised 100 million USD by 2007 but in reality, only raised 18 million USD that year. (RED) also claims to have affected 90 million lives to date although the global HIV prevalence is only 36.7 million. (RED) does not provide information on how they collect data nor how they have “affected” the lives of 90 million people. Take for example (RED)’s country profile on Kenya: it claims that 1.5 million people live with HIV, consistent with UNAIDS data, yet they also claim that 40 million lives (of 50 million Kenyans) were affected by (RED) in Kenya. 

Philanthrocapitalism: The (RED) Campaign

(RED) Infographic (Source: The Global Fund)

The Efficacy of ARVs

(RED) oversimplifies the issue of HIV/AIDS by solely investing its efforts into antiretrovirals (ARVs), HIV drugs. Studies have already found ARV-resistant HIV mutations dating as far back as 2005. These mutations have primarily been found in Africa, the main target for the (RED) campaign, essentially rendering ARV treatment useless. Thus, a roll-out of ARVs on a massive scale would adversely increase resistant mutations. This finding can be corroborated by another study conducted in 2009 which found ARV resistance consistent with longer duration of ARV therapy in West Africa. More alarmingly, a study conducted in Chad found 50% of patients were infected by an ARV drug-resistant HIV. It is evident that the genetic diversity of HIV poses an immense barrier to adequate treatment for patients. Continuously investing in ARVs instead of HIV prevention will only further perpetuate ARV-resistant HIV strains and hinder progress made towards eliminating HIV.

Overlooking the SDOH

Investing money solely into ARVs overlooks the underlying SDOH and systemic poverty of affected communities. A recent study stated that social stigma, poor health literacy and a punitive legal environment hinder implementation of basic HIV/AIDS programme activities. Social stigma regarding HIV/AIDS has been extremely prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and is a common reason why many do not seek testing and medical attention. While ARVs have become more accessible in sub-Saharan Africa, many are reluctant to disclose their HIV/AIDS status, creating a barrier to reaching potential beneficiaries of ARVs. Even if (RED) supplies ample ARV medication, it is futile or perhaps even counterproductive if HIV positive individuals are not actively seeking medical attention. 

Alternatively, (RED) could invest in HIV prevention, which would tackle social stigma, literacy and legal reform, as opposed to HIV/AIDS treatments. In Zimbabwe, mass media and interpersonal communication through family, friends and church has reduced HIV prevalence by 14% between 1997 and 2009. Uganda is another success story via high level political support, condom promotion, utilizing religious leaders, and targeting women, youth and stigma. Social programs have proven to be a more effective approach to combat HIV/AIDS, especially within Africa. However, (RED) has not expressed any interest in shifting its efforts. One possible reason could be that investing in HIV prevention does not resonate with consumers the same way investing in HIV treatment does. HIV treatment is more tangible for consumers to comprehend and donate towards. Another possibility is that companies in partnership with (RED) have no interest in changing their framework and are only concerned with their public reputation.

Reputation Over Resolutions: Apple and the (RED) Campaign

Apple and (RED) have been in partnership for 11 years and claimed to have raised 160 million USD, a small percentage of their profits as they reported a 46.9 billion USD net income in just 2016. Apple has more than enough resources to donate towards HIV prevention, separate from the (RED) campaign. Although Apple may claim to promote the well-being of less fortunate communities through the (RED) campaign, it seems their only focus is in Africa as the company has been criticized for poor working conditions in factories. 

Apple (RED)

Apple’s (RED) campaign for World Aids Day 2016 (Source: brandchannel)

Hilariously, Apple was criticized by Bono for its lack of promotion of the (RED) campaign. Despite raising 75 million USD at the time, Bono criticized Apple for placing the (RED) logo on the inside of their phone case. The branding of (RED) products seems particularly important to Bono and Shriver. Tamsin Smith, the former president of (RED), proclaimed “(RED) is not a charity, it’s a business model”, despite (RED) being filed as a charity exempt from all federal income tax. Additionally, (RED) often boasts about its sustainability. In an interview with the New York Times, Shriver clarified sustainability meant sustainable income for participating companies, not creating sustainable change for the communities impacted by HIV/AIDS. Shriver stated that Gap wanted to sell a t-shirt and give 100% of the proceeds to (RED), but (RED) wanted Gap to make the money which allows the (RED) campaign to be sustainable. The (RED) campaign allows companies to put up a façade in which they appear to support charity when, in reality, their underlying motive is profit.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Through eliciting compassionate consumerism, companies are granted the power to decide which causes should be supported and to what degree. The (RED) campaign implies consumption as a viable and sustainable way to solve social issues. Companies supporting the (RED) campaign are exploiting global issues to make a profit. The money generated from this campaign should be invested into prevention programs concerning the underlying causes of HIV/AIDS as opposed to treatment of HIV.

However, this does not suggest to completely exclude companies from supporting resolutions for complex global issues. I would advocate for quite the opposite. Companies should participate in philanthropy by supporting charities, investing in research and removing the necessity for consumers to purchase an exclusive charity labelled product in order to make a contribution. A larger emphasis should be placed on solutions rather than reputation. Alternatively, the option for consumers to support charities directly, bypassing companies, always exists because buying a (RED) iPhone is not going to cure HIV. Although the argument that at least (RED) is contributing to HIV treatment can be made. However, over 11 years, there have been no adjustments or improvements made to the (RED) framework despite criticism from many. This poses the question whether the (RED) campaign and participating partners are genuinely invested in eliminating HIV.


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