Sunday, July 09, 2006

Aids in Africa: Can Bono, Buffett and Gates provide the solution?

Forget about the fight against Aids in Africa. Effective immediately, this pressing task has been outsourced to Bono’s Project Red and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mr Radio Friendly Unit Shifter himself, the two richest men in the world, and a whole bunch of youth-oriented multinationals have got together in a loose popular front for the eradication of the killer disease.

So is there anything wrong with market-based solutions dressed up in wraparound shades? After all, nobody on the left can dismiss out of hand anything whatsoever if it saves people’s lives.

Why, Bono’s Product Red – effectively a brand name that is licensed out to companies such as Motorola, American Express, Gap, Nike and Converse - even cheekily appropriates socialism’s traditional colour scheme.

The beauty is, there’s no need to get involved in all that tedious activism malarkey. Just buy a Motoslvr L7 RED – handset and 12 month contract will set you back a minimum of £260 – and yes, a whole tenner will go towards combating Aids in Africa.

You could, of course, buy a cheaper phone and give £50 to the Terrence Higgins Trust instead. But that would be missing the point.

For the likes of Nike – desperate to convince the public that they have now stopped using sweatshop manufacturers, even though campaigners dispute this claim – signing up must have been a no-brainer.

Indeed, the premium price tag makes it a profitable proposition. Hundreds of thousands of African orphans can now be deployed to ensure liberal sports shoe buyers feel good about themselves, at no extra cost to the company.

The Sex Pistols famously sang about cheap holidays in other people’s misery. But thanks to Bono and Product Red, over-priced sweatshirts can now be marketed on precisely the same basis.

I don’t know just how far Product Red will set the fashionista woods alight. But clearly there is some sort of market out there. As its website breathlessly informs us: ‘There are already over 10, 500 people on the (PRODUCT) RED waiting list, itching to hear about the next great product to launch and where they can buy it. Excitement keeps building.’

Meanwhile, Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Warren Buffett - the second richest man on the planet - is to give away $31bn of his $44bn fortune. Most of the money will go to a foundation set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the only inhabitant of this earth wealthier than Buffett himself. The two men are picture above, with Buffett on the left and Gates on the right.

The Gates Foundation, already endowed with an estimated $26.9bn before Buffett’s generosity, will be able to spend $3bn annually, on causes that include the search for a vaccine for HIV. That will significantly boost current research outlay, estimated at $682m a year, and can only be a good thing.

Yet it’s here the left needs to start raising questions. To begin with, how did Gates and Buffett come to be so wealthy in the first place, in a world where more than 3bn people still live on less than $2 a day?

Well, both were born into affluent families. Neither is a first generation millionaire. Like everyone else that has become super-rich, both made their current fortunes on the back of the surplus value created by the labour of others.

Gates has been guilty of unfair and anti-competitive monopolistic business practices, some of them ruled illegal in some countries. Buffett hasn’t scrupled at putting workers out of a job where and when that strategy has served the bottom line of Berkshire Hathaway.

The system that perpetrates poverty for most people in Africa and the system that generated the vast wealth of Gates and Buffett are two sides of the capitalist coin.

If these guys feel sufficiently guilt-tripped to undertake what is, in the scheme of things, a pretty minor ameliorative effort, then OK. But such a strategy leaves a host of crucial issues - from the limitations on the availability of condoms to the lack of basic health care across an entire continent – totally unexamined.

Meanwhile, because middle-aged business men still come near top of the uncool charts for most young people, a major rock star has been roped in as an apostle to exonerate exploitation, provided only that the exploiters offer some small pay-back:

‘Red is where desire meets virtue, where consumerism meets philanthropy, were shopping attempts to meet the need of a continent in crisis. … Big business is not bad. Big bad business is bad.’

If shopping really can meet the needs of a continent in crisis, politics is obsolete. All social welfare becomes a matter for the whims of the private sector, devoid of any form of democratic accountability.

Bear in mind that the Gates Foundation already provides 90% of the world budget for the attempted eradication of polio.

It looks like the richest man in the world, in league with the second richest man in the world, is set to become more powerful still.

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