Fight AIDS at a Store Near You

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, June 1 -- The world's fight against the AIDS epidemic may be increasingly underwritten by the sale of such things as cellphones and airline tickets, by bigger investments from corporations working in AIDS-wracked countries, and by substantially greater health spending by the most afflicted countries themselves.

That is the picture emerging at a meeting here as 191 countries and about 800 civil society organizations confront a huge, growing and essentially permanent bill to bring AIDS treatment and prevention to the developing world.

Branding consumer items as weapons in the battle against AIDS has already begun and is a potentially revolutionary strategy for adding everyday commerce to charity and foreign aid as the major sources of global AIDS financing.

Government contributions -- with the Bush administration's $15 billion, five-year global AIDS initiative the chief example -- will not fully meet the demands that experts and activists expect in the next few years. Roughly three times the amount spent last year on AIDS in needy countries -- $8.3 million -- will be needed in 2010, according to United Nations estimates. The United States spent $2.8 billion on global AIDS programs last year, the administration estimates.

"Millions will be on antiretroviral drugs until death," said Richard G.A. Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, holding up a bottle of generic pills before a meeting of delegates. "This is a moral commitment between the wealthy and the non-wealthy that we have to maintain. If the flow of money is interrupted, the drugs will be interrupted."

The Global Fund has raised $8.9 billion and disbursed it to 386 programs in 130 countries since it was created after the first U.N. General Assembly on AIDS five years ago. It needs an additional $900 million for its sixth round of five-year grants, which will be made in November.

As a new source of money beyond government and foundation contributions, the fund has just inaugurated a program that it hopes will harness the vanity, altruism and immense purchasing power of young adults.

The project is called Product Red, after the color of the folded ribbon that has become the universal symbol of AIDS activism. The Global Fund licenses to a few companies the right to sell Red-branded items, with some of the proceeds going to the fund.

The Giorgio Armani fashion house is selling sunglasses similar to the ones worn by Bono, the U2 singer and activist who helped create the Red program. Converse is selling shoes with one red eyelet, some made from African mudcloth. Gap is selling red T-shirts.

About 40 percent of the gross margin from the sales will go the fund. (The exact terms are secret.) The companies cannot count the contributions as charitable donations. Instead, they are considered marketing expenses that the companies hope will help lure buyers to their products.

Motorola last month offered a red cellphone, with $10 of the purchase price and 5 percent of all monthly charges going to the Global Fund. American Express is offering a red credit card with the promise it will send a sum equal to 1 percent of all charges to the fund.

These products are initially on sale only in Britain. In the last two months they have raised $10 million.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company