Peace, Poverty, Shopping, and AIDS

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 has been awarded to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. Yunus and the Grameen (literally “rural”) Bank started the microcredit movement thirty-two years ago in Bangladesh. Microcredit is the practice of lending small amounts to women to begin businesses to support their families.

According to the Associated Press, Grameen Bank’s loans average just $200. Ninety-seven percent of the recipients are women. The repayment rate is ninety-nine percent. Since its inception, the bank has lent $5.72 billion to more than six million Bangladeshis and serves at least 70,000 of their villages.

The decision to award the prize to Yunus and the bank strikes me as important for at least three reasons. First, it acknowledges the link between peace and poverty. “Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty,” notes the Nobel Committee’s press release.

Second, the award goes to a local person working in a local situation, and the work has global implications. From its beginning in the Bangladeshi village of Jobra in 1974, the microcredit model has spread around the world and is widely recognized as critical in mitigating poverty.

Lastly, the Nobel decision highlights work that is “bottom up.” Women begin small businesses that pull their families out of poverty, repay the loan, and the money is lent out again to repeat the cycle. Yunus’s work doesn’t rely on large corporations, developed nations, debt forgiveness, or handouts.

In the recent midterm elections here in Wisconsin, one TV ad for gubernatorial candidate Mark Green showed his children mocking him as he listens to his favorite band, U2, on his iPod. My own kids thought it uproariously funny because, of course, my favorite band is U2. If there’s a CD in my player, it’s either U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb or All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

I enjoy U2 tremendously. I admire Irishman Bono, the rock star, theologian, prophet, and activist who is U2’s most visible member. A part of me even likes what he’s doing in his Product (RED) campaign in the United States. It’s the same campaign that in Britain during early 2006 raised $10 million for African HIV and AIDS programs.

With the Product (RED) campaign Bono is clearly thinking globally but acting locally. In his case, local means the Western Hemisphere. Bono’s local is big.

The Product (RED) campaign promotes name-brand goods for sale to anyone with enough cash or a credit card to buy. A (RED) Motorola Razr phone. A (RED) collection of clothes and accessories from Giorgio Armani. (RED) jeans from The Gap. A portion from each sale goes to the U.N.-backed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, especially in Africa. Product (RED) is the perfect marriage of consumerism and altruism.

“The idea is simple, the products are sexy, and people live instead of die,” Bono said in a statement. “When you buy a (RED) product, the company gives money to buy pills that will keep someone in Africa alive.”

Yunus’s work is from the bottom up. Bono’s work is from the top down: wealthy Westerners purchase expensive goods, and a portion of the sale’s price funds disease- fighting programs. It’s a “shop till you drop” strategy that appeals to Western consumers.

It’s no coincidence that Bono launched his Product (RED) campaign on the very day the Nobel committee announced the recipient of the Peace Prize. Bono was considered a leading contender for the prize because of his previous concerts and campaigns for Africa, including ONE: The Campaign to Make Poverty History. Winning and announcing Product (RED) on the same day would have been a publicity gold mine.

Still, Bono’s publicity machine is big enough that his Product (RED) campaign was featured in a three-and-a-half-minute story on NBC Nightly News on October 13. The same newscast gave Yunus capturing the Nobel Peace Prize a mere twenty seconds.

I wonder what would happen if Bono, instead of asking us to buy a (RED) Apple iPod nano or (RED) Gap t-shirt, asked us to sink our money into a loan fund at the Grameen Bank. I wonder if we’d respond to the tune of $10 million as the British did during Product (RED) earlier this year.

If I have an indisputable need to buy someone an expensive t-shirt this Christmas, you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll buy a (RED) t-shirt at The Gap. But before that happens, maybe I should ante up some money for a microcredit program.

Mary DeJonge-Benishek is a writer from northeast Wisconsin.