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Product RED and other socially ‘responsible’ commodities are becoming increasingly popular among ethically concerned shoppers. In the western world, ‘Brand Aid’ for women and girls in Africa enjoys overwhelming popularity.(2) The connections between the ‘Brand Aid’ approach and a trend promoted by the World Bank called ‘gender equality as smart economics’ are increasing. In the name of empowering women and eradicating poverty in Africa, these two approaches often work hand-in-hand to maximise development outcomes. Bono and other celebrities have shamelessly promoted this moral high ground above the more conventional approach of philanthropy. However, international development experts have been criticising the dangers of ‘shopping well to save the world’ and ‘investing in a girl to eradicate global poverty.’
This CAI paper explores the potential impacts of these approaches on some women in Africa and argues that a ‘Brand-Aid-smart-economics’ approach neglects to problematise several key issues. Notably, these development efforts ‘instrumentalise’ women and girls as vehicles of economically efficient development rather than autonomous subjects worthy of investment in the name of human rights and dignity.
What is ‘Brand Aid’?
In Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World, Lisa Richey presents a well-crafted critique of ‘compassionate consumption.’ She specifically focuses on the popular ‘Product RED campaign’ (endorsed by companies such as Starbucks, Armani and Gap) and other mainstream aid campaigns, including Lance Armstrong’s ‘Livestrong’ for cancer research.(3) They argue that these programs have unbalanced effects, in that they promote the expansion of consumerist tendencies focused on people’s desire to ‘save the world’ far more than they actually advance the plight of the people they are supposedly ‘saving.’(4) Richey believes that these campaigns ‘sell suffering’ by relying on familiar media representations that simplify complex issues like HIV & AIDS in Africa.(5) The authors urge readers to position campaigns like RED against the background of historical of slavery and colonialism, defined by affluent, powerful countries’ extraction of resources from the continent.(6) By situating ‘Brand Aid’ within a broader context of unequal global relations between North and South, Richey problematises the idea that through ‘Brand Aid’ shoppers are also buying the illusion and reassurance that they are capable of ‘saving African women and children’ through their ethical purchase.(7)
‘Brand Aid’ and ‘Gender equality as smart economics’
“Forget China, India, the Internet, invest in a woman”(8) is the opening quote of the World Bank’s 2007-2010 Gender Action Plan (GAP) titled ‘Gender equality as smart economics.’ This plan promotes the idea that to “advance women’s economic empowerment we must enhance women’s ability to participate in land, labour, financial and product markets, thus promoting shared growth…”(9) Stern critiques from academic and civil society circles point out that this approach instrumentalises women in order to reduce poverty, promote growth, and benefit the global poor at large. Elaine Zuckerman, President of the Washington DC-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), Gender Action, argues that the GAP approach neglects to embrace a human rights framework and exacerbates poverty and inequality amongst women. “The campaign pressures the women it targets by increasing their responsibility and vulnerability, making them susceptible to situations such as contradictory loan conditionalities that ultimately make it difficult to meet targets,” she says.(10)
I argue that ‘Brand Aid’ and the ‘smart economics’ approach are part of the same recent trend by which major NGO’s and aid agencies buy into ‘selling suffering,’ celebrity endorsement and consumerist rewards. This new phenomenon creates the illusion that consumers are ‘saving African women and children’ through the power of their purchase, entering a contest or by making a simple donation, and that the ordinary shopper or donor is getting more ‘bang for their buck.’
CARE USA, ‘Girl up’ and ‘The power of a girl’
CARE USA promotes its donation campaign ‘The power of girls’ with the following descriptors: “Women are one of the largest underutilised resources we have. When CARE invests in women, the entire world receives the value of that money” combined with “Poverty has a woman’s face…You have the power to help her.”(11) This campaign utilises the smart economics approach to recruit interested investors, much like a bank or investment company would. To the consumer, CARE may seem caring, but by positioning African women as a ‘resource’ and the donor as an agent, capable of bringing that ‘resource’ to life, the campaign casts development as a simple capitalist venture and robs women of their agency and individuality.
The United Nations (UN) Foundation ‘Girl up’ campaign asks American teens to be “BFF’s with girls in Malawi.”(12) They can be ‘best friends forever’ either by donating a ‘high five’ (US$ 5 or more) or by purchasing one of the many pink, turquoise and white ‘Girl up’ merchandise available, including an “Ivanka Trump signature Girl up bracelet.”(13) This campaign cleverly unitilises the ‘Brand aid’ power of persuasion by commoditising American girls’ connections with and help to their faceless Malawian counterparts. It incorporates the ‘smart economics’ model by justifying the need to invest in girls by pointing out that women and girls reinvest 90% of their income in their families and communities.(14)
Free the Children Canada’s ‘The power of a girl’ campaign holds that “Investing in a girl is key to breaking the cycle of poverty.”(15) Free the Children combines the allure of a Hollywood celebrity and women’s beauty products to entice young people to ‘break the cycle of poverty by investing in a girl’. The ‘Power of a girl prize pack’ plays to the consumerist desires of those doing ‘good’ and includes a Dior gift basket of beauty products, Natalie Portman’s ‘Rodarte’ dress (which she wore to the premiere of her latest movie Black Swan) and a trip to Kenya.(16)
Taking gender into account
These examples reinforce a variety of essentialist views, including that women are ultimately domestic caretakers who comprise most of the informal workforce in Sub-Saharan Africa. A recent report titled Putting gender back in the picture: Rethinking women’s economic empowerment points out that “recognising and addressing the enormous time and effort consumed by caring and the severity of the impact this has on people’s everyday lives must be a priority if we are really serious about empowering women.”(17) Therefore the focus should fall on men and women and attempt to increase men’s involvement in the domestic sphere, which could render the everyday challenges women face less intimidating. Finally, the existing pressures and burdens of responsibility in women’s everyday lives must be considered when promoting methods of development that champion women alone as bearers of salvation from poverty.
The business case for development
The smart economics model for promotion of gender equality relies on a business case for development. It places a simplistic and unattainable onus on women to pull their countries out of poverty when all the while industrialised countries rely on trade relationships, technological advancements and governance to fuel their growth.(18) The sole focus on women may also have unforeseen consequences for them, including increased vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence because women are favoured by aid suppliers. Furthermore, development should focus heavily on health, wellbeing, rights and social justice, instead of economic assistance alone. Financial gain for women does not necessarily precede these other developments.(19)
Celebrity aid and capitalist desires
Richey points out that consumer based philanthropy holds both material and symbolic consequences for women and children in Africa.(20) By encouraging ‘compassionate consumption,’ aid agencies steer attention away from the gendered causes of poverty, such as inequities in systems of production and trade, by focusing on lofty outcomes like empowerment and/or reducing poverty.(21) Furthermore, ‘aid celebrities’ such as Natalie Portman and her involvement in the Free the Children campaign allows people to become “consumer-citizens as fashion-conscious yet actively engaged and ethically reflective…. which creates the image of a world in which it is possible to buy as much as you want, while at the same time helping others.”(22) Homogenising ‘women and girls in Africa’ instead of recognising the broad range of diversity and histories robs women of their agency, individuality and ability to overcome obstacles.
NGOs and aid agencies are under enormous pressure to cave to the demands of an increasingly difficult market, in which alternative approaches to acquiring donations and funding are necessary. It is no surprise then that many NGOs have turned to consumerism, celebrities and the ‘business model’ or ‘smart economics’ to raise funds. Whilst a focus on women and girls is laudable, it is also important to raise awareness of power structures that underpin the need for these funds. Development agencies risk instrumentalising poor women whilst comforting the consciences of rich consumers. Deviating from a rights-based approach to development raises the risk of recreating and reinforcing north/south power imbalances implicit in international trade.
(1) Contact Katherine Austin-Evelyn through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) ‘New book: Brandaid: Shopping well to save the world’, Danish Institute for International Studies, 2011, http://www.diis.dk.
(6) Richey, L. A., 2010. Brand Aid? How shopping has become ‘Saving African women and children with AIDS’. In S. Chant, ed. International handbook on gender and poverty. London: Eward Elgar Publishing, Inc., pp. 504-510.
(8) ‘Gender equality as smart economics: A World Bank Group Gender Action Plan (Fiscal Years: 2007-2010)’, World Bank, 2006, http://web.worldbank.org.
(9) Ibid, p.9.
(10) Elaine Zuckerman, ‘Critique: Gender equality as smart economics’, Gender Action, December 2007, http://www.genderaction.org.
(11) CARE USA, http://www.care.org.
(13) United Nations Foundation, http://www.girlup.org.
(15) Free the Children website. http://www.freethechildren.com.
(17) Esplen, E., & Brody, A., 2007. Putting gender back in the picture: Rethinking women’s economic empowerment.In Bridge report: Institute of Development Studies University of Sussex, 19, pp.1-49.
(18) Anna Carella, ‘So now we have to help ourselves and the rest of the world too? A critique of the Girl Effect’, Aid Watchers, 4 January 2011, http://aidwatchers.com.
(19) Esplen, E., & Brody, A., 2007. Putting gender back in the picture: Rethinking women’s economic empowerment. In Bridge report: Institute of Development Studies University of Sussex, 19, pp.1-49.
(20) Richey, L. A., 2010. Brand Aid? How shopping has become ‘Saving African women and children with AIDS’. In: S. Chant, ed. International handbook on gender and poverty. London: Eward Elgar Publishing, Inc., pp. 504-510.
Written by Katherine Austin-Evelyn (1)
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