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Product (RED): from ridicule to dialogue

This blog has ridiculed the RED campaign from all possible angles. We’ve questioned whether creating a few pennies of aid through buying a corporate product is worth all the hype, criticized the murky finances of the legal entity behind RED, and gone after RED co-founder Bono with jibes, fake awards and parodies.

Displaying exceptional cool in the face of this mockery, Bobby Shriver, the other co-founder of RED, met me for a coffee. He could have gone all angry and defensive and preachy about His Great Initiative (which others in his place have done). Instead, he asked for suggestions on how to improve RED.

In response to my suggestion that RED source more products from Africa, he pointed to the “From Africa To Africa” coffee from Starbucks and said they had apparently not done enough to advertise they were already doing that. He also said he was open to discussing it more. I think RED marketing to support self-help by African entrepreneurs to sell in the US would be brilliant. (I have to report that the RED coffee I tried was OK, but nowhere near the Tomoca Coffee I purchased in Ethiopia – the best coffee I have ever had but difficult to buy outside Ethiopia.)

I too tried to be open-minded. He understands the politics of advocacy much better than I do: “You’ve got to get them talking about the cause at the Pig Roast” (the typical fund-raising event for a congressional candidate). Let’s give Shriver and RED credit for raising awareness of AIDS in Africa, not to mention of African poverty in general (although I’m sticking to my argument that the Bono/RED approach has led to some paternalistic and misguided remedies to those problems.)

Is ridicule a good way to promote dialogue? I don’t know. I don’t believe in “why can’t we all just get along” rather than debate. There are already plenty of people using aid-establishment-speak to talk politely around the issues—blunt critiques and satire can be useful to break that spell. Shriver also deserves credit for hearing the criticism and still being willing to engage in dialogue. I am wondering if sometimes I should look harder for dialogue before the satire starts.

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17 Comments

  1. wkw wrote:

    Just one question: Was the coffee you and Mr. Shriver drank from Africa?

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 12:45 am | Permalink
  2. I give this post a metaphorical standing ovation. It’s refreshing to read that you talked face-to-face with someone you’ve disagreed with and learned something. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve read similar words (or heard them spoken) by popular bloggers and pundits.

    Real accountability we need, along with tough critiques and honest assessments. Dialogue we need, along with goodwill. The problems in the world can only be faced by decent folks admitting their limitations and working together one small step at a time.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 2:25 am | Permalink
  3. teekay wrote:

    The central question whether ridicule is a good way to promote dialogue is quite important to ask in development-related academia and policy-making. If by ‘dialogue’ you mean the old-fashioned way that ‘the Professor’ publishes an article in the, say, Journal of Social Responsibility Studies’ and organises a slightly boring and polite conference on the theme than ridicule is certainly an alternative for our times. Ridicule and other ‘literary’ forms of critique should be regarded as relevant entry points into ‘real life’ debates such as this discussion as long as there is a minimum of academic/scholarly substance to back up the core message (which I think is the case here). As British academia is discussing the introduction of ‘impact’ as a factor to determine academic quality, more and more questions will arise as to whether new forms of outputs should be considered as well. Has a free blog post a ‘better’ impact than an expensive journal article that is ‘hidden’ behind a pay-wall? As always in development the answer includes ‘it depends’ and ‘it’s complicated’…the only risk I see is the ‘Perez Hiltonisation’ of development blogging. Perez Hilton has turned a simple blog into a complex marketing machine on which he depends and in which he is involved personally and financially. Financial aspects are probably minimal in the development scene, but the ‘currency’ of airtime, board memberships, consultancies or guest lectures is already out there. I am a junior academic myself and I could see a situation where a polemic critique leads to a presentation in front of the board of directors for example-and finally a picture or some form of endorsement on the blog. A win-win situation? PR? Or not a big deal at all? Again, it depends on many factors, but many academics (especially outside the US) need to think about new ethical challenges that ‘Web 2.0′ raises. Bobby Shriver is honest and/or intelligent and/or clever enough to realise that dialogue is the right first step to manage the credibility of the RED brand-now we shall see whether real change will follow…

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 5:15 am | Permalink
  4. geckonomist wrote:

    Through their “cafe practices” and a premium price garanteed for premium quality green coffee beans, Starbucks created and opened up a whole new market for high quality washed arabica coffee in Africa (examples: Rwanda & Uganda).
    And this extra money goes straight into the pockets of the farmers. The number of farmers willing to join, has been growing exponentially since it’s very lucrative for all involved (also for the traders, by the way).

    And once the market was there, suddenly other gourmet coffee traders moved in to outcompete Starbucks – so it wasn’t even offering silly “fair trade” prices.

    Moreover, probably unique for washed arabica coffee, if the quality goes up, also the quantity (&productivity/tree ) goes up, which is a good thing in itself.

    This Starbucks plan has done much more for peasant farmers than any Red NGO ever will.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 5:37 am | Permalink
  5. George wrote:

    Great post.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 5:44 am | Permalink
  6. Keith wrote:

    Wow, Bill… you’re easy! I thought it would have taken a lot more than a nice demeanor and appeal to your ego (a-la-ask for your opinion) to make the Aid Industries Junk Yard dog to wag its tail… Hopefully, he bought you coffee too…. :)

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  7. nadeem haque wrote:

    Nice Bill. Good to see dialog is still possible.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  8. Raphael wrote:

    Completely agree on the Tomoca coffee!

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  9. Did you provide RED with a specific list of supplies and training that African BOP personnel need to make a living in the specific countries that RED is trying to help? Do BOP personnel need micro-irrigation systems, ferilizer, pesticides, nursery stock, seeds, farm equipment, well drilling equipment, veterinary supplies, small animals suitable for backyard farming, poultry netting, etc? How do you propose that these supplies and training be sold to BOP personnel so that they can double their income within one year?

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  10. Andrew W wrote:

    Satire is for life, dialogue’s just for Christmas (or seemingly, coffee with Bobby).

    Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:06 am | Permalink
  11. Jeff wrote:

    Bill maybe you are mellowing with age. Or maybe your recent success and prize have made you less angry. Glad you are questioning the effectiveness of satire. Debate is for healthy inquiry. Satire is just elitist fun. It’s cathartic (which is why I watch Jon Stewart after a hard day) but not very good at convincing people.

    By the way, didn’t i give you your first pound of Tomoca?

    Posted January 29, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink
  12. booksquirm wrote:

    I agree with teekay – they’re managing the situation, like skilled and intelligent public relations people do. Saying that they talk with their critics looks so much better than saying that they don’t because as the comments here show, people respect open-mindedness.

    I don’t doubt their good intentions and their commitment and drive is great too but they create a certain kind of ‘gaze’ where we see problems around the world in terms of things that can be fixed by the ad hoc cash donations of shopping. Worse, if something’s seen as a really big problem, they arrange concerts to raise money and awareness so that we get the impression that if there isn’t a benefit gig for something then it can’t be that big a deal. The organisation’s scale and influence over people’s perceptions mean that we say to the impoverished around the world that while in theory, as citizens, we can influence our governments’ foreign policy to be less detrimental to them, in reality, what they really need to do is catch the attention of a rich Western entertainer or business tycoon. If RED or ONE set up something like an open access tv channel where marginalised people around the world could tell their own stories then I wouldn’t have a problem with them but they prefer to control how we view the people they help, like they manage the look of how they deal with critics.

    Posted January 29, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Permalink
  13. Dave Backus wrote:

    I don’t know what works best, but your satire is really entertaining, would hate to give that up. Can’t we have some fun here?

    Posted January 30, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  14. Zeynep wrote:

    “Is ridicule a good way to promote dialogue?”
    John Stewart is the most trusted newsman. I think ridicule works just fine…

    Posted January 30, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink
  15. PMcClellan wrote:

    Coffee Summit-Awesome! (was it really coffee?)

    Seriously-Very cool that Bobby Shriver is open minded and willing to listen to the “other side” and smooth some feathers.

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  16. Nate Jackson wrote:

    “He understands the politics of advocacy much better than I do:”

    Amen. That is what Product RED is essentially about – advocacy marketing. The $ is secondary. I do agree that they could focus more on African products.

    And kudos to Dr. Easterly and Mr. Shriver for the meeting. Sometimes all it takes is a different perspective to more fully understand something.

    Posted February 2, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  17. Karis wrote:

    geckonomist : I’m sorry – do you have any proof or evidence on the prices paid to farmers and the sustainability of the Starbucks purchasing system? Because from what I know of Starbucks they have one or two certified Fair Trade coffee. Fair Trade may not be a panacea, but it’s accountable. And that says more than Starbucks’ claims. Not to mention that Starbucks tried to ban Ethiopia from patenting it’s coffee so that farmers could make more money because they’d pay more. They only withdrew b/c of a heavy handed campaign by Oxfam and others.

    Bill, I don’t know your views on Fair Trade, but to me, that the Starbucks RED coffee is not Fair Trade is questionable. I’m sure the $1 from every bag of RED coffee sold will go far. Cue the eye roll.

    Here’s my benchmark. I go out of my way to buy Fair Trade (the official certification) where I can (sugar, coffee, cocoa), because in my research I’ve not found a legitimate and fair alternative. And if someone sells one product that is FT among many that are not, they are definitively window dressing, and nothing more.

    Posted February 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink