Friday, April 27, 2007

Consumer charity

I watched the last three weeks' worth of American Idol over the past couple of days, which means that my avoidance of entertainment news can end (thank God, because I was really starting to miss TMZ). To be honest, the strike wasn't really worth it, especially considering the cop-out "no one gets voted off" schtick that they pulled on Wednesday. The charity thing was hokey, somewhat grotesque, and slightly reminiscent of being in a zoo, but according to an article on their website, it has raised over $60 million already. That's about how much the initial grant from USAID was to fund the project that I work on that was initially designed to spend five years addressing TB, malaria, and AIDS, the same issues that Idol Gives Back is focusing on in Africa. You know it's for real when even the Gates Foundation (through Nothing But Nets) is involved.

On some level, it seems wrong that such massive campaigns to help dying people only ever seem to be generated when linked to consumption and profit, like the Red campaign. But it's not as simple as demeaning marketing ploys. It makes sense to donate money that people would be spending anyway. It makes sense to encourage people who would otherwise not even think of donating to do so by selling the idea of charitable acts along with whatever products they are already consuming. This is the idea that Bono has bought into wholeheartedly.

It is upsetting on a broader level to think that people can buy a red phone instead of a silver one and then tell themselves that they have done their part to help save the world. And it is upsetting to think that choosing the charitable product over the non-charitable version that you were already going to buy is the extent of many people's charitable giving. But given that those people weren't going to give anything before, and given that the money is badly needed, I think it makes sense to attempt to channel consumption that already exists into actual dollars that can go to people who really need the assistance.

I guess the thinking goes that it would be great if everyone who could afford to do so spontaneously opted to give money to important causes. But since they don't, and since their money is sorely needed, it's impossible to accept only those donations that stem from pure goodwill: beggars can't be choosers.

And it is absolutely true that many people are just genuinely unaware of the great need for these things, even if it's because they've created their own impermeable bubble to spend their lives in. So if anything that can be done to pierce that bubble, it should be. Especially when you get over $60 million in two days.

I'm aware that this post sounds somewhat sanctimonious and probably overly serious. And it's not like I'm sending off piles of cash to Africa each week. But it is a complicated issue, and a somewhat depressing highlight of what nearsightedness a consumer-based culture like ours can engender. But at the same time it's encouraging to know that consumer-based cultures aren't synonymous with selfishness as much as they are with an inward focus. People don't look around them and see what they can do, but if someone makes them aware of it, they are unselfish enough to do something about it.

And I also believe that pure unselfishness does not exist. Any time we do anything good, even if we don't get any material benefit from doing it and even if it's an extremely challenging thing for us to do, we do it in part because we think we should, or because it makes us feel good. We do it because of our own motivations. It's natural, it's human, it might be depressing, but ultimately I think it's okay. And I'm glad that when people living in such a culture are shown images, even grotesque ones reminiscent of colonialism, that they react and reach out.

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