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Commodifying Compassion

Implications of Turning People into Marketable Things 

Funded by the danish council for independent research

Commodifying Compassion (CoCo) links Ethical Consumption and Everyday HumanitarianismIn this research project, we hypothesized that brand aid campaigns commodify humanitarian causes in ways that impact the overall humanitarian narrative and thereby the financial and symbolic relationships between: 

  1. Humanitarian organizations and their funders

  2. Humanitarian organizations and their beneficiaries, and indirectly

  3. Consumers as ‘helpers’ and their beneficiaries.

Studied through the use of vertically integrated, systematic ethnographies-of NGOs and corporations, and recipients to explore dynamics in three different contexts where humanitarianism has been a realm traditionally dominated by the church (Italy) the state (Denmark), and the market (United States). It also included fieldwork with recipient populations to understand how people whose lives are commodified for the promotion of humanitarian causes responded to the forms and outcomes of this commodification.


The overall objective of Commodifying Compassion was to understand how ‘helping’ has become a marketable commodity and how this impacts humanitarianism symbolically and materially.


Business, B-Corps and Buonisti: Understanding the Governance of Humanitarian Helping in Contemporary Italy

I present "Business, B-Corps and Buonisti: Understanding the Governance of Humanitarian Helping in Contemporary Italy", done in collaboration with Adriano Pedrana. The study is the first English language survey of the national humanitarian context in Italy, examining the institutional framework in which individual ethical consumption and 'do-gooders' or 'buonisti' operate. We find that private actors play an important role within the Italian institutional setting, creating a fertile ground for brand aid style partnerships and other forms of commodifying compassion.

Our working paper with Maha Rafi Atal on the study will be coming soon here

Brand Aid and Value Chain Partnerships at the Service of Corporate Strategy: Starbucks and Kahawa Bora Coffee in Eastern Congo

Together with Stefano Ponte we present our work on the Starbucks campaign Cup of Hope that aims to 'rebuild the country's coffee industry' together with Ben Affleck's Eastern Congo Initiative. Our study finds that Starbucks leverages a value chain development partnership to achieve strategic sourcing goals and are ironically marketed by development NGOs as a way of 'working aid out of business'. Such value chain development initiatives, fueled by celebrity support, are central instruments of business strategy with Congolese farmers as sidekicks on the show, witnessing the commodification of 'African problems' to sell products to consumers in the Global North.

The presentation is based on our paper Brand Aid and coffee value chain development interventions: Is Starbucks working Aid out of business?

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