By Kiri Dicker
I have been quite dismayed lately about the amount of airtime that has been given to new Australian social enterprise HERO Condoms, and the lack of criticism from those working on development issues.
HERO refers to itself as “a socially responsible condom company, whereby for every condom sold, a condom is donated to a developing country to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and save lives.”
The company has provided more than 75,000 free condoms in Botswana and is returning next month to donate 500,000 more. The idea for HERO Condoms came from a university assignment by founder and “Cause Hero” Dustin Leonard, which earned him and his group a Credit (slightly above a pass)–for good reason…
HERO is one of a multitude of new “social” businesses using the Buy One Give One (BOGO) model made famous (or infamous) by TOMS Shoes , a company that is valiantly solving the world’s footwear shortage. In fact, the founder of HERO Condoms mentions TOMS as his original inspiration for starting the company. In case you weren’t convinced by the deficits of the TOMS model, check out this WhyDev post written by the poor sod tasked with distributing thousands of TOMS shoes in Kenya.
So, what’s the harm in distributing free condoms, you may be thinking?
My problem with HERO begins with their false and misleading advertising, which plays on damaging stereotypes about African people. Firstly, the brand name “HERO” is problematic, implying that the simple act of having safe sex can “save an African life.” Let me make it clear: white people are not Africa’s heroes. If you want to learn more about the White Saviour Industrial Complex and why it’s a problem, I recommend this article, and this one.
“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” – Teju Cole
The HERO website also exclaims: “A devastating epidemic threatens an entire continent…without proper protection or treatment, the rate of infection is expected to catastrophically grow to 95 million within the next decade.” Simply by buying HERO Condoms, you are contributing to the fight against HIV/AIDS and helping to save lives.” That sentence alone almost made me go and buy a HERO condom!
But then I realised that it’s nothing more than a marketing gimmick designed to create a false sense of urgency in order to sell a product.
Let’s set the record straight. First, Africa is not a country. Not all of Africa’s 54 countries have a significant HIV problem. For example, countries in North Africa and the Horn of Africa have significantly lower HIV prevalence rates than most of sub-Saharan Africa. While Botswana (the “Africa” where HERO distributes free condoms) does have the world’s second-highest HIV rate, what HERO neglects to mention is that the country is well known for its aggressive and effective approach to preventing the transmission of HIV (no, you can’t transmit AIDS). Not only is Botswana’s HIV infection rate NOT expected to “catastrophically grow” in the next 10 years, the number of new annual HIV infections in Botswana declined by 71% between 2001 and 2011.
That’s right, HERO. Batswana have got this.
Finally, HERO’s strategy of shipping hundreds of thousands of free condoms to their NGO partners in Botswana falls dramatically short of the comprehensive and rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health that is needed to address HIV transmission. Is HERO also going to fund awareness campaigns in local languages? Are they going to be distributing female condoms as well as male condoms? Will they provide resources to help NGOs distribute these condoms? I’ve never been to Botswana, but if it’s in any way similar to other countries I have lived and worked in, local sexual health service providers are underfunded, understaffed and overworked. The last thing they need is an additional 500,000 condoms to distribute.
All of this makes me wonder: is HERO really serious about making a genuine impact in Botswana? If they are, they will look beyond the gimmicky distribution of free condoms and towards funding the vital work of local NGOs. What if, for example, every pack of HERO condoms you bought donated funds to help a local NGO train one sexual health nurse, or teach one young person about sexual health? HERO could even do something truly innovative and coin a new acronym: BOTO–Buy One, Teach One!
Luckily, all is not lost. To HERO’s credit, it seems like they are beginning to explore more effective options by offering funding to local partners providing antiretroviral treatment (ART) to expectant mothers living with HIV. It is clear that HERO’s staff and customers have good intentions, but unfortunately good intentions don’t always equal good development practice.
Personally, I am going to stick to ordinary condoms, not ones that make me feel like someone else’s “HERO.” If I want to give, I’ll donate to an established organisation in a way that responds to their needs, not by buying from a not-so-social enterprise.
Kiri Dicker is the Founding Director and Chief Innovation Officer of Think Out Loud International, a company that provides gender advisory services in the aid and development sector. In 2014, Kiri was a delegate to the Emerging Pacific Leaders Dialogue. She holds a Masters of Community Development (Emergency Management) from Southern Cross University.
Featured image shows a pile of condoms. Photo from Flickr.
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