Celebrities and aid: the ongoing debate

This was cross-posted to my professional blog.

The aid and development blogosphere loves to debate (and often hate on) celebrities lending their names to aid. Whether it is starting their own charities or becoming ambassadors for existing ones, there is no dearth of commentary on whether celebrities help or hurt the cause, whether they have a place stepping into the fray, or whether they are worth the hassle or the cost of keeping them on payroll.

After a reporter from the Telegraph painted a painfully ignorant picture of Elizabeth McGovern on her World Vision-sponsored trip to Sierra Leone (who was subsequently tarred and feathered by aid commentators here and here) in December, the issue was in the public eye most recently when Oxfam and actress Scarlett Johansson parted ways over the latter’s affiliation with SodaStream, a company that makes machines to carbonate drinks. This week, a smug and witty editorial in the Guardian made ample reference to the former story when commenting on the latter, and threw in references to handful of other stars that have made names for themselves in the world of development charities. It is an interesting piece that explores the relationship (and occasional conflict) between celebrity sponsorships of charities versus consumer goods.

Upon closer inspection, however, it seems to me that the question of “Are celebrities good for aid?” is a somewhat complicated question, much like, “Does aid work?” Any aid commentator to whom that question is posed will (after rolling their eyes) explain that there are many different types of aid and thus no one single answer to that question. Throwing Elizabeth McGovern or Scarlett Johansson in the same category makes as much sense as comparing either or both of them to George Clooney, Madonna, or Bono.

Should celebrities start their own charities? I am going to go with probably (or even definitely) not. This was painfully obvious during last year’s fiasco surrounding Madonna’s visit to her project in Malawi, or Oprah’s school in South Africa.

It seems logical to me that the advice to zealous well-intentioned do-gooders of “don’t start your own NGO” should go for celebrities as well: there is already an over-abundance of them, some of which are well-integrated into your target community, so putting your name and/or funding on something that already works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But should charities bother with celebrity sponsors? As far as I can tell, that question should be answered by a cost-benefit analysis. Sure, it’s painful for those of us who are immersed in aid and development to see a charity like World Vision put so much funding into a visit for a celebrity who is kind of an airhead, but the general public would probably be more forgiving of her ignorance – if they learned about it, which they probably won’t. If it helps World Vision raise more money or their profile, then from their perspective it is certainly worth the investment, and are we right to hold it against them? The Guardian editorial cites research that explores the impact that celebrity engagement has on media coverage and social values. One study, instigated (ironically) in part by Oxfam, argues that “campaigning by charities brings the risk of promoting individualistic and consumerist values at the expense of collective action and citizen engagement.” On the flip side, other research shows that celebrities can raise the profile of otherwise neglected issues if they work through well-established frameworks (i.e., George Clooney in Darfur). There is a lot of commentary on whether charities are promoting the “right values” by slapping famous people’s faces on their ads, but their primary concern isn’t to change the way the public in wealthy nations perceives the developing world – it’s to raise money to continue doing their work. Which I don’t think is entirely unfair.

On a different note, I think there is more Johansson’s parting from Oxfam than meets the eye. Upon digging a bit deeper, I discovered that the reason for the split was because SodaStream (an Israeli) runs a factory on an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. They employ about 500 Palestinians and (at least, according to Johansson) treat and pay them well. However, Oxfam is unequivocally opposed to any Israeli settlements or businesses in Palestine – so, because of the organization’s very prominent political position, they had to let the actress go.

Perhaps the more pertinent question for Oxfam, rather than, “Are celebrities worth the trouble?” might be “Are politics worth the trouble?” Which, incidentally, is its own very interesting question.

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