IRIN, the UN news wire, put out a piece called “Humanitarian work – it’s the new black” today. It starts off with this joke:
At an open-air concert somewhere, Bono is called to the stage to speak to the crowd.
At first, he says nothing, only claps his hands every few seconds. After about five claps, he says to the audience: “Every time I clap, a child in Africa dies.”
An audience member yells back: “Well stop sodding clapping then!”
Pretty funny stuff, eh?
But the rest of the piece, much to my dismay, doesn’t really attempt to answer any questions concerning celebrity endorsement of humanitarian causes. This is the bottom line, according to the author:
The bottom line, however, is that whatever their motives, big names do get publicity for the charities and causes they champion. Many people in the West know about the impacts of HIV in Africa because of Bono, they know about the crisis in Darfur because of George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and they know about orphans in Malawi because of Madonna.
I emphasized the verb “know”, because that is my main qualm with celebrity activism. What do people actually know about these issues? Very little. Raising awareness is great, but when complicated issues are boiled down too far, it creates a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, which, ultimately does not serve the cause. And unless the “knowing” is accompanied by the “doing”, what’s the real value?
The other issue, that my prof Rony Brauman had raised, is that the crises or issues that are chosen by celebrities to be covered do not necessarily reflect the highest level of need. For instance, not a lot of celebrity activists are standing up for the distribution of rehydration salts which help children with diarrhea survive (2 million children per year die of diarrhea – that’s 6,000 children every day – if I were a huge cynic, I would point out that that represents a sh*t load more victims than the Darfur conflict.)
Mainstream media already does a pretty poor job of coverage – so many issues that are crucial in terms of human security (diarrhea), or regional security (the ongoing conflict in Somalia) for example, are sometimes brought up but never given the kind of attention that other “pet” issues have received. When you add another layer that determines coverage worthiness (is someone beautiful talking about this in large public gatherings?), then the reasons for which a crisis is covered in the media become increasingly less objective.
That being said, we should definitely differentiate between Jessica Simpson’s trip to Kenya and the real commitments made by the likes of Bono. Clearly, the two operate at very different levels of engagement, and their actions have different motives and consequences. Still though, to come back to the IRIN piece, how much more do people really know thanks to celebrity endorsements?