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Inspi(red) idea, unexplo(red) power

Project Red's star-studded effort to fight disease will only go so far in turning Africa around.

October 26, 2006|Dan Turner | DAN TURNER is a Times editorial writer.

BETTER RED than dead. That's what I figured when I stopped by a Gap store the day after Project Red's Oct. 13 U.S. launch to pick up a T-shirt and, incidentally, save the world.

Project Red, the brainchild of U2 frontman Bono and Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver, is a cross-branding partnership in which Apple, Motorola, Converse and other companies earmark profits from Red iPods, RAZR phones and sneakers for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Thanks to Gap's nationwide celebrity billboard campaign and Bono's appearance on "Oprah," the line of shirts, jackets and sweatshirts is a hit. At the Gap I went to, shoppers were picking over the few remaining Red shirts.

Project Red's success to date is inspiring stuff. Yet there was one slightly sour note as I thumbed through the short stack of Gap T-shirts. Right under the XL on the label (hey, these things are designed for 19-year-olds) were the words "Made in Cambodia."

Cambodia has its own problems with AIDS and other diseases. Yet Asia, unlike Africa, has developed a sophisticated manufacturing industry, especially for apparel. The bulk of the money raised by Project Red will go to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa, which in turn will reduce poverty -- but not as much as a vibrant manufacturing sector would. If Bono and Project Red's other heavy-hitting backers really want to help Africa, wouldn't it be better to make the Red products there?

In fact, some of Gap's Red clothes are made in Africa; those T-shirts with messages such as "INSPI(RED)" and "BO(RED)" are made in Lesotho by Precious Garments, a Gap contractor that employs 4,500 people. That the rest of the line is made elsewhere is no fault of San Francisco-based Gap Inc., but it does point up the logistical nightmares that make turning Africa around far more complicated than handing out AIDS drugs.

Fabric mills use expensive, high-tech machines to weave thread into fabric, and Africa has very few of them. If a retailer wants an African-made shirt, it typically has to ship the fabric from Asia so it can be cut and sewn in Africa. This made some economic sense when textile exports from powerhouses such as China and India were restricted by World Trade Organization quotas. In January 2005, those quotas were lifted. Now retailers can get all the clothes they want from Asia faster and cheaper than it would take to get them from Africa.

So why not build more fabric mills in Africa? Sub-Saharan Africa still lacks the infrastructure -- stable governments, power lines, paved roads -- to support industry. Also, the workforce is so sickened by AIDS and malaria that business owners never know whether their workers are going to show up.

BAD AS THIS situation is, it could get worse. One of the few remaining competitive advantages for companies such as Precious Garments is that its clothing can be exported to the United States duty-free under a trade deal with sub-Saharan Africa signed in 2000. A provision that applies to apparel made in Africa out of fabric made elsewhere expires in less than a year. If it isn't renewed by Congress, much of Africa's fledgling apparel-export industry could be crushed.

Shriver, Project Red's chief executive, says the success of Gap's clothing launch has piqued the interest of other companies that want to sell Red products; he has recently been contacted by car companies, a beer company and even a candy maker that wants to sell Red chewing gum. None of these things are likely to be made in Africa (though Addis Ababa Hubba Bubba Gum has a nice ring). For now, we'll just have to settle with saving millions of people from needless death; Bono and Co. can tackle trade inequities next week.


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