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Irish rock star and activist Bono holds up a folder with the logo of One, the advocacy organisation he co-founded, which works to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Check Your Privilege: Self-Interest, Celebrity And Saving The World

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Friday, September 9th, 2016
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 Irish rock star and activist Bono holds up a folder with the logo of One, the advocacy organisation he co-founded, which works to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP
Irish rock star and activist Bono holds up a folder with the logo of One, the advocacy organisation he co-founded, which works to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

What is it that stops us from thinking that a fairer world is possible? The American writer and intellectual Susan Sontag once wrote of the need to recognise how “our privileges fall on the same map as their suffering”. Yet the map of the world does not gather itself up as straightforwardly as Sontag suggests. Wars are today fought less often between nations than within them. Most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries. More and more people are growing old in places far from where they were born.

Still, Sontag’s basic point holds. Something is seriously wrong with the way we have come to think about the relationship between wealth and want, about which privileges are defensible in the face of others’ suffering. In rich countries it has become commonplace of late to speak of inequality in these terms. But when it comes to inequality at the global scale, to understanding why droughts steal lives, migrant boats capsize and armed violence rules the slums, we confine ourselves to talk of “global poverty” still.

Consider the award-winning advert for the luxury brand Louis Vuitton. Shot by acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz, the photo features rock star and aid activist Bono along with his wife, the designer Ali Hewson. It forms a part of Vuitton’s Core Values campaign. And though it does not itself focus on global suffering – it is an advert for luxury bags after all – everything being co-promoted in the advert, from local charities to fair-trade companies, does. Their presence (and co-promotion) is intended to endow the Vuitton brand with their moral capital – to define, in that way, what Vuitton’s global values are.

Reflecting the exquisitely tailored bags the company seeks to sell, the photograph is perfectly crafted in pitch and palette as it updates the Victorian epic of discovery for the present. “Every journey began in Africa”, the words tell us (somewhat superfluously, since the mise-en-scène leaves little room for doubt). As to where in Africa, that seems not to matter: the contrast is the thing. To such ends Leibovitz has arranged a basic wash of taupe vastness, conveyed by limitless grass and sporadic bush, over which the eyes of our explorers Bono and Ali roam free. The scale of the scene and the continent it represents is further amplified by the presence of the white- and red-enamelled plane. Before this rich-world stage effect, the two passengers grasp Vuitton Keepall 45s, co-designed by Ali herself. In the background, the sky roils up in a painterly cloudscape.

The question of poverty in all of this is implicit, metaphorical and heavily sanitised: there are no other people, for one. But Africa and its struggles are essential to the picture: as the presence of an African backdrop, in conjunction with the protestations of core values, attests. As ever in the colonial imagination, although the natives may be useful, it isn’t appropriate for them to be cluttering up the background. Instead, what we have are a few feathered Kenyan charms hanging from Ali’s bag. In compensation for the lack of a native presence, they offer a visual punctum of African lore, one that draws us to the main point of the photograph. Because these charms, it turns out, are made by fair-trade company MADE and are the defining feature of the Vuitton bags that Ali has designed.

Once we have digested all this, our eye drifts down to the accompanying text. Here we read that profits from the sale of both Louis Vuitton and the (third) brand being co-marketed here, Ali’s own ethical clothing brand Edun, will benefit the local charity that she and Bono run in Uganda. Their appearance fees will benefit Chernobyl Children International. Has ever the world been so generous? For all that it appears to be selling a leather bag, through its narrative turns this advert is in fact selling you, reader of the glossy magazine, the belief that you can make the world a fairer place, and then so beautifully. “Buy luxury goods, and you too can help save our planet,” it says: a message that seems to be increasingly common.

To put all this more precisely, these images would have us believe that the problems of poor people elsewhere in the world not only are unrelated to our own pursuit of wealth; they might even stand to be alleviated by it. It is imperative that we understand how we have come to think like this. To be sure, Bono in particular was a central figure in mobilising engagement around the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s and debt reduction in the 1990s. His conscience is no doubt cleaner than many of us can claim. But the inconsistencies he embodies are important. And he has worked hard to become a global symbol.

We are all, of course, entitled to a good deal of self-interest, and what other way than by using their own celebrity status are well-known actors or musicians to respond to something they feel moved to act upon? But neither self-interest nor the peccadilloes of celebrity mannequins are the heart of the problem. It is a more general loss of perspective that ails us. At the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, then British chancellor Gordon Brown hailed as a “historic breakthrough” the $40bn of debt cancellation that had been secured internationally, through many gritted teeth. Never before had anything like so much money been made available to poorer countries, and Brown was right to celebrate an initiative that had taken years to get to the table.

Yet just a few years later, as the credit crisis took hold, the world’s largest economies – with Brown leading the way, now as prime minister – moved swiftly to deploy more than $1trn to save some of the largest western banks, many of which had acted far more irresponsibly with other people’s money than the poor nations whose creditworthiness and fiscal responsibility had been so fussily picked over at Gleneagles. And it is revealing, is it not, that it was the bank bailout, not the debt write-off, which led Brown to fire off his unfortunate “we saved the world” comment.

  • Simon Reid-Henry is associate professor in geography at Queen Mary University of London and a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo.

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