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Why the new Amex card makes me see RED

The must-have credit card is more about making Western consumers feel good about themselves than ending AIDS in Africa.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

A picture of Brazilian supermodel Gisele standing alongside a striking Masai in traditional warrior’s dress is currently plastered on billboards around London. It seems to be saying ‘you too can be a beautiful person’. Under Gisele are the words ‘My Card’; under the Masai it says ‘My Life’. The image is designed to promote the new American Express RED credit card. What makes this card different from a traditional Amex one is that at least one per cent of the user’s spending goes towards helping to fight AIDS in Africa.

It is necessary to include the caveat ‘seems to be saying’ because the website for the card and the associated publicity includes few words (1). It is strong on images but weak on explanation. To the extent that there is any context, it is mainly told through the personalities of Gisele and the Masai warrior. We are told Gisele is ‘one of the world’s most famous and beautiful models’, and that, for her, promoting the RED card is ‘an opportunity to give something back by making her own unique contribution to the fight against AIDS in Africa’.

Keseme, the Masai warrior, is ‘proud and fiercely independent’, and also evidently has a friend, Kip, whose wife advises women on safe sex. As a result, Kip is ‘well aware that defeating AIDS is vital for the future of communities and cultures like his and Kesemi’s, across Africa’. The site also outlines various deals available with the card and tells those who want to apply that the interest rate is 12.9 per cent APR variable.

Of course, the promoters of the card are not claiming that they can give the average person the stature and fine features of a supermodel. Instead, the implication is that it can make its users more beautiful in a spiritual sense. Those who use such cards will, it is suggested, be helping a worthy cause through their actions. But at the same time the commitment involved is minimal – all they need is an ability to spend money, which is not a task that most people find difficult.

The card’s promotion fits in perfectly with the double standard in relation to consumption that is so prevalent today. Mass consumption by working people is sneered at when it is at popular outlets such as McDonald’s, Wal-Mart or Starbucks (2). ‘Chavs’ – a derogatory term generally applied to white working-class youth in Britain – are particularly despised for their conspicuous consumption of leading brands such as Burberry. But the middle class feels it can consume with a clear conscience by choosing such items as organic products or fair trade goods. Consumption is seen as terrible in general but okay if an ethical label of some sort is attached to the goods. Those who can afford to pay a premium for such products can live and shop with a clear conscience. Or, as Gisele put it in an interview with The Sunday Times: ‘We can all start shopping more, and feel good about it. No more guilt!’ (3)

Product RED – the broader initiative of which the Amex RED card is a part – tries to cash in on this sentiment by providing an ethical tag to leading consumer brands. Bono, lead singer of U2 and global anti-poverty campaigner, and Bobby Shriver, a member of America’s Kennedy clan, have set up the project with leading brands including Converse, Gap, Giorgio Armani and Motorola (4). The campaign says explicitly that it is not a charity but ‘a commercial initiative designed to create awareness and a sustainable flow of money from the private sector into the Global Fund to fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa’ (5). Bono made a similar point at the launch of Product RED at the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the world’s elite, in Davos, Switzerland: ‘Philanthropy is like hippy music, holding hands. RED is more like punk rock, hip hop, this should feel like hard commerce.’ (6) So it is sold as capitalism with a conscience, or consumerism with a heart, to enable the private sector to help the wretched of the Earth.

Amex RED, and ethical products in general, appeal to a middle-class conceit, while often providing those involved with a tidy profit on the side. There is no attempt to understand or discuss the problem of underdevelopment in the Third World. On the contrary, Africans are portrayed as victims or museum pieces. The image of a Kenyan in Masai warrior dress in the RED advert – which looks like it belongs in a 1930s Tarzan movie – should itself be a warning sign. The Make Poverty History campaign’s white wristband and the RED credit card seem to be more about making some in the West feel good about themselves rather than tackling global poverty.

None of this would matter much if the proceeds truly helped the fight against AIDS in Africa. There is no doubt that the AIDS pandemic is a tragedy that has killed millions of people worldwide and threatens even more. But it is important to recognise that the Product RED campaign shares the low horizons of Make Poverty History. This is hardly surprising since Bono and Shriver play a central role in both initiatives (7). It is difficult to imagine many people objecting in the abstract to the idea of making poverty history or fighting AIDS in Africa. However, a close examination of such campaigns shows that the grand rhetoric is not matched by genuinely ambitious initiatives (8).

The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria – through which the money from the RED card is channeled – certainly deserves closer examination (9). Officially it is a partnership involving governments, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and affected communities. Since it was founded in 2002 it has become the main international organisation through which spending on these diseases is disbursed. So far it has spent $4.4 billion in 128 countries (10).

To understand why this approach is problematic, it is worth going back to its origins. The Global Fund is the creation of the leaders of the world’s richest countries rather than a grassroots movement. The idea was floated at the G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, in 2000 (11). It was ratified by Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, at a special session of the General Assembly in 2001 (12). Then it was formally launched at the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, in 2001 (13).

A defining feature of the mainstream approach to development is its emphasis on poverty reduction. In other words, the emphasis is on mitigating the worst aspects of poverty rather than trying to transform poor countries into rich ones. Attempting to pinpoint the greatest tragedies – such as the millions dying of AIDs or malaria – is a characteristic feature of this approach. The strategy is embodied in the official Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), sanctioned by the world’s leaders and international organisations. For example, in relation to AIDS the goal is to ‘halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS’ by 2015 (14). For other diseases the goals are even more limited (15).

The fundamental flaw of the orthodox approach is its failure to appreciate that the best way to tackle poverty is to pursue an ambitious development strategy. And since poor health in the Third World is often linked to poverty, such ambition is also key to tackling many diseases (16). If Third World countries were rich – if poverty truly was made history – they would have far more resources to treat diseases. They would also have better infrastructure – clean running water, proper sewerage, electricity, roads, hospitals, airports, a proper phone and IT network – which plays a key role in stopping many diseases developing in the first place. Yet the MDGs do not have such a transformation as a target, and many of their proponents are actively hostile to it on the spurious grounds that it is ‘unsustainable’. Instead they reinforce a climate of low expectations, which assumes that real development is unrealistic and probably undesirable, too.

Those really concerned about global poverty need to be prepared to engage in hard arguments about the need for economic development. They should put the case, without equivocation, that the people of the Third World have a right to the best that society has to offer. Putting such arguments is immeasurably harder than spending money on a credit card. Yet at least it does not involve using images of suffering Africans to make Westerners feel morally superior. Those who indulge in such ethical consumption may feel beautiful inside, but the project they are involved in is actually pretty ugly.

Daniel Ben-Ami will be speaking at the debate on the Battle for Affluence at the Battle of Ideas festival in London in October 2006. Visit his website here.

(1) The site can be found here

(2) See, for example, Sean Collins, Who’s afraid of Wal-Mart, 25 August 2006

(3) Gisele, The Sunday Times, 24 September 2006

(4) See the Product Red website

(5) See the RED FAQs

(6) Tim Weber, Bono bets on red to tackle Aids, BBC News, 26 January 2006

(7) The two of them are also behind the Data organisation which campaigns for the G8 industrialised countries to keep their promises to Africa and supports the Make Poverty History campaign

(8) See, for example, Daniel Ben-Ami, Poor ambitions for the world, 3 February 2005

(9) Its official website can be found here

(10) Statistics come from the Global Fund website

(11) G8 Communiqué 2000, Okinawa, 23 July 2000

(12) Karen Allen, Q&A: Global fund, BBC News, 10 July 2002

(13) G8 Genoa summit: http://www.g8italia.it/_en/docs/KJIHGZ31.htm

(14) See the official Millennium Development Goals website: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/index.html#

(15) On the intellectual limitations of the contemporary orthodoxy on development see Daniel Ben-Ami “Postponing the ‘End of Poverty’ “ Spiked 6 May 2005.
http://dev.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CAB08.htm

(16) See, for example, the Fighting Diseases website

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Topics Politics

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