(RED) and Rwanda: Using consumerism to fund the fight against AIDS

Cover image courtesy of (RED).

–by Carrie Sikorski–



The (RED) Campaign, founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver, has been criticized as a poster-child for “telescopic philanthropy” by encouraging wealthy Westerners to embrace their consumerist impulses for a good cause. This paper will examine the ironies and paradoxes inherent in this philanthropic model while simultaneously looking at the positive impact of grants that it has helped to fund in Rwanda. (RED) asked the question, can a child be saved from AIDS by buying a t-shirt? The answer is yes when you look at the successful outcomes of investments in the medical and educational community in Rwanda. Officials in Rwanda credit (RED) sponsored grants with the creation of 33 testing and treatment centers, and the provision of medicine to over 6,000 women to prevent the transmission of HIV to their unborn children. (RED) seems to be finding a balance of satisfying the need for “telescopic philanthropy” and providing tangible results for those in need of “help.”


The (RED) Campaign since its inception has been using consumerist impulses and corporate desire to be seen as “doing good” to help fight the war on AIDS in Africa. By partnering with the Global Fund to distribute the funds that it raises through corporations worldwide, (RED) has been able to answer the question of whether a child could be saved from AIDS by buying a t-shirt. The answer is yes when you look at the successful outcomes of investments in the medical and educational community in Rwanda that have been made possible through the sale of t-shirts, iPods and gift cards. Officials in Rwanda credit (RED) sponsored grants with the creation of 33 testing and treatment centers, and the provision of medicine to over 6,000 women to prevent the transmission of HIV to their unborn children. This outcome shows that (RED) may very well have found a way to create a win-win scenario in the satisfaction of the need for “telescopic philanthropy” while providing tangible results for those in need of “help.”

The (RED) Campaign

The (RED) campaign was established in 2006 by the rocker Bono and Kennedy clan -scion Bobby Shriver to drive corporate profits into the Global Fund to fund AIDS programs in Africa.[1] It launched at the World Economic Forum where they jumped right into securing partnerships. (RED) emerged out of and is a division of the ONE campaign which aims to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030. Bono proposed (RED) as a separate entity as he believes that “to change the world we need consumer power; idealists and activists alone will not get the job done.”[2]

(RED) started with the following manifesto:

(Red) is not a charity. It is simply a business model. You buy (Red) stuff. We get the money, buy the pills and distribute them. They take the pills, stay alive and continue to take care of their families and contribute socially and economically in their communities.

If they don’t get the pills, they die. We don’t want them to die. We want to give them the pills. And we can. And you can. And it’s easy.[3]


(RED) sees its main role as engaging the private sector, its marketing prowess, and funds in the fight against AIDS in Africa. The Global Fund, which receives the money raised by (RED), was established as a public-private partnership and was working on the issue of AIDS in Africa before the inception of (RED). Bono and Bobby Shriver saw the purpose of (RED) as being a way to provide a sustainable and steady flow of money into the Global Fund. Before the launch of (RED), businesses had contributed just $5 million to the Global Fund in four years. In the decade since its inception, the private sector, through (RED) and its efforts, has contributed over $350 million.[4] 100% of the money generated by (RED) partners goes directly to the Global Fund, to finance programs fighting AIDS in Africa.[5] (RED) also provides a link on its website for direct contributions to the Global Fund for individuals that do not want to support (RED)’s corporate partners, but still want to contribute to the cause.


The 2019 report from the Global Fund indicates that (RED), in fact, has raised more than $600 million to fight HIV through the present year.[6] The map above shows where (RED) lands in the current mix of organizations and nations making pledges to the Global Fund.

While (RED) is not the largest donor to the Global Fund, the largest private donor is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States leads the way among nations, the corporate dollars that (RED) has raised have had an immense impact. (RED) supported grants have gone to fund HIV/AIDS programs in Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Rwanda, South Africa, eSwatini, Tanzania and Zambia. It is estimated that over 140 million people have been reached with prevention, treatment, counseling, and care services through these grants.[7]

Philanthropic Model

“Shop (RED) Save Lives.” Photo from red.org.

The (RED) campaign partners with commercial partners including Apple, Nike, Dell, American Express, Starbucks and The Gap. It allows them to use the (RED) name to market their own products with a promised contribution, up to 50% in some cases, coming to (RED) and the Global Fund. The companies pay for all of their own marketing expenses and get to set the price of their products. You can find (RED) products for under $10 and for over $1,000.

For some brands, a new product is created and for others a slightly higher price is added with the money going to the (RED) campaign. The ads for companies appeal to a “dual ethos, uniting the clothes-shopper and the victim-rescuer by making shopping and saving parts for each other’s wholes.”[8] The shopper doesn’t have to go out of their way to donate just pick a certain product when they need a new shirt or even band-aids. They can feel benevolence while fulfilling their shopping needs. A salesperson at the GAP noted to a reporter, “the majority is bought by parents for their kids’ Christmas or birthday presents,” she says. “They figure, I’m giving my child a gift and also giving back.”[9] Bono hopes that the shopping turns into a “gateway drug to wider activism.”[10]

The companies involved in the (RED) campaign often want to improve their brand’s image by being affiliated with a cause. The (RED) campaign saves them from having to do guesswork in picking a charitable cause. They are able to join in with an internationally recognized campaign to eliminate a disease that has wide recognition – AIDS.

The desire to be seen in this light is not unique as many other companies have tried to get American consumers to view their consumerism as helping the world. Toms and other companies attempt to do the same through a targeted issue to varied success. [11] (RED)’s corporate sponsors, on the other hand, can point to proven success in delivering aid to countries fighting HIV/AIDS. The head of the international arm of the GAP indicated to UK press when (RED) first launched that they felt confident partnering with (RED) because of Bono’s involvement saying “with his record in the field, Bono would not be advocating this programme unless he felt we were doing the right thing.”[12]

Impact in Rwanda

Various examples of successes by the (RED) campaign can be found on the Impact section of its website. The country receiving the most attention for its success is Rwanda. According to the (RED) campaign, Rwanda became its first grantee in 2006. By 2015, it had received $79 million in grants made possible by (RED). This amount is equivalent to 11.6% of the Global Funds entire AIDS grant to Rwanda.[13]

Photo of Doctor treating an HIV patient in Rwanda, courtesy of the New York Times.

Rwandan officials credit (RED) contributions with enabling the building of 33 testing and treatment centers, the supplying of medicine for more than 6,000 women to keep them from transmitting H.I.V. to their babies, and the financed counseling and testing for thousands of more patients.[14] These contributions and the results that they have created have been credited with declining the rate of new HIV infections from 13,000 in 2004 to 7,400 in 2018. Further, the number of those infected with HIV that receive antiretroviral treatment rose from 3% in 2004 to 83% by 2017.[15]

Successes highlighted on the (RED) website of initiatives that sales have helped fund include Aprofaper in Rwanda. Aprofaper is an NGO that promotes economic development, health education, and legal aid to people living with HIV, while also working to stop stigma in the broader community. Before Aprofaper was present in the community, people living with HIV were stigmatized, leaving them isolated and unable to work. Thanks to the introduction of community education and health services, as well as economic empowerment opportunities, such as farming and animal husbandry classes, HIV+ people living in Mukamira, where Aprofaper is based, are not only healthy but thriving. The grants to Aprofaper have helped people to develop income streams which allow them to support their families.[16]

Another successfully funded organization is Kimisagara Youth Center in Kigali. The Kimisigara Youth Center is a one stop shop for adolescents and young adults. The Center provides services such as IT education, vocational training and career counseling, as well as sports and arts programs. While at the center for these life skills programs, youth can also access sexual reproductive health services and counseling in an accessible, youth-friendly environment. Peer educators from the Center work to educate the broader youth community via interactive theater and sports programming. The ultimate goal of these programs is being able to provide the youth with essential knowledge on how to protect themselves from HIV.[17]

An example of an individual life being saved through the “Lazarus effect of anti-retroviral therapy” was highlighted by the British newspaper The Independent. An eight-year-old Rwandan school girl, Denyse Mushimiyimana, was diagnosed with HIV and fell into a comatose state. She was administered a course of the anti-retroviral drug cocktail that the (RED) campaign helps to fund, and, as a result, she was back in school laughing with her friends within 3 months.[18] Another girl, Angelique, who is living with HIV, is hoping to become a doctor, despite being an orphan and living with the disease. She said the following to a reporter from Vanity Fair after being asked if she wanted to share anything with Westerners who might be reading the article; she simply said, “thank you so much for these ARVs, because otherwise I’d be dead.”[19]

Ironies in “Helping” PR

In reviewing the successful impact of (RED) fundraising in Rwanda, one would assume that the viewing public of advertisements would see them in a positive light. Nevertheless, the images chosen and the impact of advertisement still comes under strong scrutiny. It is a circling back to the issue of commercial social responsibility and “telescopic philanthropy,” the focus on issues far away from home.

“You Sip. We Donate.” Courtesy of Starbucks.

A prime example of this can be found in the 2014 trip to Kigali, Rwanda by four Starbucks employees chosen by Corporate. They embarked on the trip to see the impact of Starbuck’s partnership with the (RED) campaign in person. While in Rwanda, they toured the Kimisagara Youth Center, a health center and a coffee plantation that Starbucks funds. An article and a video were produced to show the benevolent outreach of Starbucks, and show the reactions of their employees to encountering people that are “helped” by the money Starbucks raises for (RED). The article produced ends with the following quote from one of the Starbucks employees: “The 10-cent donation from each Starbucks handcrafted beverage purchased on World AIDS Day adds up and changes lives. I’ve seen firsthand the difference it makes. When you think about it, that’s a powerful latte.”[20]

A cynical reader would outright condemn this blatant end piece of mentioning their lattes; yet, one cannot deny the assistance that the latte did provide. The beans are creating jobs on the plantations, and the donation to (RED) helps fund badly needed vaccines. It is telescopic philanthropy that is truly win-win even if it feels forced.


“Can the shirt off your back change the world? Yes, it can.” Image of Anne Hathaway, courtesy of GAP.

A critic writing about the GAP and its ties to the (RED) campaign noted that GAP’s advertising established an “implicit trichotomy.”[21] Three categories of individuals are identified in its advertising: (1) the virtuous consumer who wants to help fight AIDS in Africa, (2) the African victims to be helped by the first category, and (3) the non-socially conscious retailers and consumers who refuse to help.[22] This effective trichotomy allows GAP to pull at the heartstrings of consumers who want to be seen as “helping” those who are less fortunate. The assistance to Africa from the GAP, however, is not just relegated to these campaigns. The GAP has brought jobs to Lesotho where most of their (RED) clothing is made. The company, like Starbucks, is working to be involved both on the ground and through cause marketing. While the use of A-list actors like Anne Hathaway in the above ad makes the advertising seem more like a ploy – a t-shirt that covers two weeks of medicine, the effect of the purchase, is truly helping provide the medicine it claims.[23]

Other Criticisms of Aid Model

A criticism of aid emerging out of socially responsible campaigns, like those that (RED) encourages, comes from Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo. He believes that all foreign aid is bad for Africa. It is his opinion that it “keeps Africa in a supplicant’s role when it’s governments need to become self-sufficient.”[24] A response to this criticism can be found from Rwandan officials themselves who can look forward to development and research now that basic healthcare is provided by grants from the Global Fund and (RED). As the health outcomes improved in Rwanda, the country began experiencing an economic boom. The former war-torn country has been averaging more than 7% growth in the last 10 years. Roads are being repaired and repaved. Sky scrapers are also being built at one of the fastest paces in the world.[25] This infrastructure improvement would be delayed if not for the investment of foreign aid dollars. In a way it is a paradoxical situation as the very aid which could make Rwanda dependent is also helping it to become more independent. As the health situation continues to improve in Rwanda, it will be interesting to view their development further as aid dollars will inevitably be directed elsewhere.

Another complaint against (RED) comes from the fact that celebrity drives the campaign. This complaint takes issue with those trying to come off as “caring” and “cool.”[26] Ad campaigns feature a who’s who of A-list stars to market products are often attacked. Yet, Bono, the co-founder of (RED), particularly comes under media scrutiny. An article in the New York Post was titled “Inside Bono’s boundless hypocrisy.” The author criticized Bono of using his charity to bring him to a higher level of importance to prevent being seen as just another “aging rockstar.” The article did tacitly acknowledge his raising awareness for Africa through galas and concerts and pressuring of governments but then scolds their fellow media for giving Bono too much credit.[27] An article in Fortune answers this critique by pointing out that the key success of Bono is his effect on those he is trying to influence after all he successfully engaged both President Clinton and President Bush to invest in Africa. Bono and his force of personality can convince others that they can be true leaders of change.[28]


While on a trip to Rwanda with reporters, Bono responded to a query about business’ motivations for participating in the (RED) campaign by saying, “It’s irrelevant what their motives are. It is not about what my motives are, either. It could be the halo effect; it could be something else. What we have to measure is whether people’s lives are being drastically improved or not by these interventions.”[29] The key to the issue is in this final statement. Are people’s lives being drastically improved by these interventions? The answer to the question is a definitive yes. The money sent to the Global Fund by (RED) provides necessary anti-retroviral medications to pregnant mothers and others who are fighting HIV/AIDS. The provision of these drugs improves the lives of the children of these mother as they will not be born HIV positive. It will hopefully also save the mothers allowing them to grow up with parents unlike the children born with HIV in the past. The examples of the young girls highlighted earlier, whose HIV has been controlled, are further proof of the benefits of (RED).

Organizations engaged in “telescopic philanthropy” in the past could be accused of providing goods that were not truly needed by the community, but in the case of these medicines which can be too expensive for even the average American, the goods received are hugely beneficial. The concept of (RED) developed by Bono and Bobby Shriver ends up being a true win-win as it helps those in need of help fighting the AIDS virus in Africa as well as the companies whose sales are funding the cause. The companies see the double capitalization possible in the venture of capitalization via sales and profit as well as capitalization via brand-image.[30] American Express provides a ready example as it saw an immediate lift in brand perception with younger customers when it engaged in the (RED) campaign. The GAP’s (RED) shirt also became one of their biggest sellers.[31] Philanthropy and Capitalism thus were wed into a simultaneously charitable and profitable marriage.

While direct contributions from organizations and individuals willing to invest in the Global Fund are also needed and hugely beneficial, the (RED) campaign helps capture those individuals who might want to be seen as “helping” but might not otherwise go out of their way to do so. It could also truly be sustainable as those making gifts could potentially be one-time. A company that sees benefits of continued ties with (RED), however, will continue to offer products that will appeal to those looking to be seen as “helping” others. (RED) offers consumers a perfect way to feel benevolent, and truly be doing good, as they grab their morning latte.


Primary Sources

  1. The Global Fund. Global Fund Results Report 2019.
  2. The Global Fund. “Rwanda: A Nation Reborn,” 20 September 2019.
  3. (RED). “Frequently Asked Questions. https://www.red.org/faqs-contact
  4. (RED). “Impact.” https://www.red.org/impact
  5. (RED)itorial. “Global Fund Partnership Has Saved 32 Million Lives.” 26 September 2019.
  6. (RED)itorial. “(RED) in Rwanda.” 31 August 2015.
  7. Starbucks Stories. “Witnessing How $12 Million from Starbucks and Its Customers Changes
    Lives.” 30 November 2014. https://stories.starbucks.com/stories/2014/world-aids-day-witnessing-how-12-million-from-starbucks-changes-lives/

Secondary Sources

  1. Amazeen, M. “Gap (RED): Social Responsibility Campaign or Window Dressing?” Journal of
    Business Ethics.
    99, no. 2 (2010): 1-16.
  2. Daily, Lisa. “Change Your Underwear, Change the World.” DIY Utopia: Cultural Imagination
    and the Remaking of the Possible.
    Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
  3. Farrell, Nathan. “Celebrity Politics: Bono, Product (RED) and the Legitimising of
    Philanthrocapitalism.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 14.3
    (2012): 392-406.
  4. Mattson, Craig E. “Buying Stuff, Saving Lives—A Critical Account of Product (RED)’s
    Economics of Attention.” The Southern Communication Journal. 77, no. 3 (2012): 216-38.
  5. Ponte, Stefano et al. “Bono’s Product (RED) Initiative: Corporate Social Responsibility That
    Solves the Problems of ‘distant Others’.” Third World Quarterly. 30, no. 2 (2009): 301-17.
  6. Phu, Cindy. “Save Africa: The Commodification of (PRODUCT) RED campaign.”
    Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research, Vol. 9, Article 7
    (2010): 107-125.

Additional Sources

  1. Ahmed, Kamal. “First Person: With Bono the preacher man on his mission to Africa: Kamal
    Ahmed joins the singer on an extraordinary week as he travels through Lesotho and Rwanda,
    to cramped hospitals and plush hotels alike, in his campaign against poverty and the
    continent’s Aids epidemic.” The Observer, 21 May 2006.
  2. Froelich, Paula. “Inside Bono’s Boundless Hypocrisy.” The New York Post, 11 November
    2017. https://nypost.com/2017/11/11/the-hypoc-risy-of-bono-and-his-one-charity/
  3. McGirt, Ellen. “Bono: I Will Follow.” Fortune, 24 March 2016.
  4. Nixon, Ron. “Bottom Line for (RED).” The New York Times, 06 February 2008.
  5. Phelps, Stan. “How U2’s Bono and the Color Red Elevated Purpose in Business.” Forbes,
    09 February 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stanphelps/2017/02/09/how-u2s-bono-and-the-color-red-elevated-purpose-in-business/#5743fec464fa
  6. Shoumatoff, Alex. “The Lazarus Effect.” Vanity Fair, 05 June 2007.


[1] (RED), “Frequently Asked Questions.” https://www.red.org/faqs-contact

[2] Alex Shoumatoff, “The Lazarus Effect,” Vanity Fair, July 2007.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stan Phelps, “How U2’s Bono and The Color Red Elevated Purpose in Business,” Forbes, 09 February 2017.

[5] (RED), “Frequently Asked Questions.”

[6] The Global Fund, “The Global Fund Results Report 2019.”

[7] (RED), “Frequently Asked Questions.”

[8] Craig E. Mattson, “Buying Stuff, Saving Lives,” Southern Communication Journal, Vol. 77, No. 3, July-August 2012, p. 228.

[9] Shoumatoff, “The Lazarus Effect.”

[10] Nathan Farrell, “Celebrity Politics: Bono, Product (RED) and the Legitimising of Philanthrocapitalism,” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations (2012), Vol 14, p. 403.

[11] Lisa Daily, “Change Your Underwear, Change the World,” DIY Utopia: Cultural Imagination and the Remaking of the Possible (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 239.

[12] Farrell, “Celebrity Politics: Bono, Product (RED) and the Legitimising of Philanthrocapitalism,” p. 397.

[13] (Red)itorial, “(RED) in Rwanda.” 31 August 2015.

[14] Ron Nixon, “Bottom Line for (RED), The New York Times, 06 February 2008.

[15] The Global Fund, “Rwanda: A Nation Reborn,” 20 September 2019.

[16] (RED), “Impact.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cindy N. Phu, “Save Africa: The commodification of (PRODUCT) RED campaign,” Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research (2010), Volume 9, Article 7, p. 114.  

[19] Shoumatoff, “The Lazarus Effect.”

[20] Starbucks Stories, ““Witnessing How $12 Million from Starbuck and Its Customers Changes Lives.” 30 November 2014.

[21] Michelle Amazeen, “Gap (RED): Social Responsibility Campaign or Window Dressing,” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 99, No. 2 (March 2011), p. 172.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 176.

[25] The Global Fund, “Rwanda: A Nation Reborn,” 20 September 2019.

[26] Stefano Ponte et al., “Bono’s Product (RED) Initiative: corporate social responsibility solves the problems of ‘distant others,’” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2009, p. 302.

[27] Paula French, “Inside Bono’s boundless hypocrisy,” The New York Post, 11 November 2017.

[28] Ellen McGirt, “Bono: I Will Follow,” Fortune, 24 March 2016.

[29] Kamal Ahmed, “First Person: With Bono the preacher man on his mission to Africa: Kamal Ahmed joins the singer on an extraordinary week as he travels through Lesotho and Rwanda, to cramped hospitals and plush hotels alike, in his campaign against poverty and the continent’s Aids epidemic,” The Observer, 21 May 2006.

[30] Ponte, “Bono’s Product (RED) Initiative: corporate social responsibility solves the problems of ‘distant others,’” 314.

[31] Phelps, “How U2’s Bono and the Color Red Elevated Purpose in Business.”

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