Posted by: Jeff | March 3, 2010

Criticizing Aid Critics

This weekend, Bill Easterly’s Aid Watchers blog re-posted a satirical article lambasting corporate donations to the global fight against AIDS:

After deciding to add a bag of (Starbucks) RED brand coffee on top of his vente mocha latte order, area man Bill West completed the final piece of the puzzle to end the AIDS epidemic in Africa…

“This is a great day for humanity,” said Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, where Starbucks made the $1 donation–taken from West’s purchase–needed to rid the continent of the disease that had crippled it for decades. “All of our work, all of our time, all of our hopes are now validated by this one last push to end AIDS in Africa.”

It’s an obvious attempt at Onion-stylized satire designed to poke fun at the belief, widely held, that buying a cup of coffee or t-shirt branded by the RED campaign will make a dent in the global fight against poverty and disease.  Taken in isolation, of course it won’t.  And even in agglomeration, it is true that the amount of money raised through this method pales in comparison to if consumers simply skipped the cup of coffee (or t-shirt) and sent the money they would have spent to Africa instead.

Well, duh.  But that’s badly misconstruing the point of campaigns like RED.  They aren’t trying to alter consumer behavior, funneling otherwise unspent dollars toward products for which paltry profits go to starving children in Africa.  The campaign is designed to provide an ethical alternative to a regular cup of coffee.  If I’m going to buy a cup of coffee in the morning, now I have an option where I know that in the aggregate of coffee purchases, I’m doing a small amount of good.  That doesn’t appease my conscience, but it does make me consider Starbucks over Caribou.

As one commenter points out:

RED tries to alter consumer behavior in modest ways. It’s not about encouraging people to buy MORE stuff. It’s about asking them to buy the (red) version of something they already planned to buy. Then the participating companies pass along $ to the Global Fund.

How can we really criticize them for not doing enough when at least they’re doing something to make it easier for consumers to contribute in a way that doesn’t alter their existing spending patterns (the truly hard part of recruiting donors!) – isn’t this the whole point of the exercise?



  1. Easterly is a haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaater. Post our convo!

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