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.