AS AN AVID ABSORBER OF USELESS INFORMATION, I take particular pride in scrutinizing all of the commercials that I see on TV. Eventually this might become useful, but as of yet: no luck other than learning the Goldfish jingle. However, I did manage to see the latest ad campaign from Cadbury that encourages you to buy their products, in exchange for which they will donate to “The Bicycle Factory,” an organization that provides bicycles to impoverished peoples in Africa. While this appears to be a noble cause (and arguably the bicycle factory is doing some reasonably good work) it underscores an element of corporate hypocrisy and false benevolence that is ultimately damaging to our world.
The bicycle factory project portrays Africa, and Africans as a monoglot of poverty and rurality that is simply not true. This is a fairly common conception in most media that attempts to create a need for philanthropy in an area where poverty has become institutionalized. For example, in Ghana (where the bicycle factory does most of its work) in 2006, more than 48% of people in the capital (Accra) owned a cell phone. In the same year, 61.5 percent of households in rural Savannah areas owned a bicycle. The fact is that West Africans are not as impoverished as the media portrays them as, and perpetuating that image is certainly not doing those who are impoverished any good.
Perhaps the most detrimental element of the campaign is the false benevolence that underlies Cadbury’s motives. I’m sure that anyone who loves stuffing those cream eggs in their face at Easter will tell you that Cadbury is one of the world’s largest producers of chocolate. And of course a key ingredient in chocolate is cocoa. So what Cadbury isn’t telling you in their ads is that the “Caramilk Secret” is exploitative working conditions and an abundance of child labour. Most of the world’s cocao (approximately 69%) is produced in West Africa, with Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana being the two largest producers. According to a 2011 study by Tulane University, roughly 1.8 million children are involved in cocoa production in West Africa. Of course these children often work under slave labour conditions, as is so often the case with agricultural industries that are heavily exploited. So although all those bicycles that Cadbury gives away help children get to school or the local well faster, they also help them get to work in the cocoa fields faster.
Moreover, Cadbury is not alone in this false philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives millions of dollars each year to the impoverished communities that continue to mine the minerals needed to make the electronic components of their new XBOX 360. Now, it could be argued that we shouldn’t expect corporations to be philanthropic, as they could after all just keep all their profits and build a Scrooge McDuck swimming pool full of gold coins. However, this disturbing trend can also been seen in institutions that are by their very nature supposed to be philanthropic. For example, the well-known Susan G. Komen “Run for the Cure” breast cancer charity used donor funds to sue other small cancer charities to trademark the phrase “for the cure.” In fact the charity has over 200 registered trademarks for which it has chosen to take legal action over small charities like “Kites for the Cure”, “Mush for the Cure” (and the short-lived “Watch Porn for the Cure”).
So the next time that you bite into a Toblerone, or buy a cup of yogurt with the pink ribbon on it, think a little more carefully about whether that sense of pride you feel is misplaced. Because although you might be giving a child living in poverty a bicycle, it may just be helping him get to work a little faster. Maybe then you’ll notice that your mini eggs aren’t covered in chocolate, they’re covered in irony.
Andrew is a fourth year Political Science student who likes fighting the power, raging against the machine, a killer workout, and a cool frosty mug. Andrew is currently reading Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, by Patton Oswalt.