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Spotlight: The Dark Continent

Africa with its litany of social, economic and health issues is an easy target for the world’s celebrity saviors. Celebrity saviors are spilling out of Hollywood to show the world they care, but also enhance their brand.

From Mia Farrow to Madonna to Bono to George Clooney, a growing group of celebs have an African cause.  Their impact is debatable ranging from harmful to helpful, but because of who they are many of the efforts attract media coverage.  Normally back burner African issues that have little chance of getting Western media coverage are pushed into the spotlight when a celeb gets involved.

When Princess Dianna walked the landmine fields of Angola she had 90 British photographers in tow.  Clooney’s campaign to stop the genocide in Darfur captured reams of coverage and gave him the ear of the U.S. Senate and the UN Security Council.  Farrow is credited with bringing attention to Darfur in 2007 and her child polio campaign in Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo raised awareness. Bono has been on a 20 year campaign to defeat famine and raise Africa’s living standards.

Hollywood help is not new and started in the pre-Internet era. The patron saint of celeb saviors is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” legend, Audrey Hepburn. While weakened with cancer she continued her goodwill UNICEF ambassador missions visiting Somalia and Kenya. Her work during the Ethiopian famine relief campaign began her fulltime global missions after she quit making movies.  Hepburn’s role as a goodwill ambassador may have endured her to as many as her film career did.  For her it was partially payback.  It was the food and medical relief she received after WWII as a European teenager that encouraged her relief efforts when she became a global icon. Today’s stars may have other agendas.

Why Us? Save Somebody Else

A growing number of African scholars and authors see the celebrity parade not as aid but a gravy train feeding the stars’ egos and careers. Andrew Mwenda, a TED speaker and the editor of Uganda’s The Independent, a news magazine, is among the most outspoken.  “All too often these campaigns are not about the welfare of the people, but act as a platform  for celebrities to promote their brand to their audience at home by exhibiting their humanity,” Mwenda writes for CNN International.

Mwenda says the psychology behind today’s celebrity aid to Africa is a vestige from the colonial past and presents the world an image of Africans as merely helpless children.  In a recent story Mwenda writes about Madonna’s Malawi campaign for young girls as an example of how celebrities try to push their weight around and expect differential treatment. When Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, took umbrage with Madonna’s desire to receive the country’s gratitude, her work there fell apart, he writes. Malawi’s minister of education accused the material girl of trying to bully officials and exaggerating her work there, which Madonna says isn’t so. The dustup comes after Madonna had adopted two young Malawi girls, but that commitment is still not good enough for critics such as Mwenda who doubts her motives as well as the rest of the celeb aid gang.

“Many of the current Western missions of charity in Africa carry an underlying tendency towards self-righteousness on the part of donors and with it, a sense of entitlement. Some of those who give charity expect the recipients to treat them with deference and to attend to their every whim. Yet Madonna is not alone. There is a growing movement in the West by celebrities to champion causes in poor countries.”

The biggest problem with celeb aid is its long term consequences. Because Africans are not active participants in these campaigns, but merely passive recipients it robs them of the self-initiative required to solve problems long term, Mwenda fears. The campaigns also overshadow the positive things happening including initiatives by reformist governments, enterprising locals and innovative youth.

Mwenda concludes, “In the long term, celebrity activism has killed the goose of private enterprise that is supposed to lay the golden egg of prosperity.”

From Activists to Diplomats

Celebrity aid does have its supporters who say don’t judge all Hollywood help with a broad brush. Some campaigners are more effective than others because they have educated themselves to the issues through contacts in African countries and have exhibited consistent commitment. Andrew Cooper, a Canadian political science professor and author of “Celebrity Diplomacy,” writes that a select group of stars have the intellectual horsepower and telegenic magnetism to use their power to change a world increasingly dominated by the global reach of information technology.  He says a select few have gone from being celebrity activists to diplomats.

The group includes Bono, Angelina Jolie, and Clooney. All have been active in Africa as well as other countries.  All have access to heads of state and have made a difference through their efforts, Cooper claims. Bono is treated like a head of state when he attends G-8 summit meetings and his one on one meeting with Germany Prime Minister Angela Merkel was responsible for pushing Africa’s development issues onto the agenda at the 2008 G-8 summit meeting. Bono’s efforts have influenced other celebs, getting Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Alicia Keys aboard the Africa aid bandwagon.

Cooper also cites a number of celebrities whose high profile has backfired when they took a stand. Soccer star George Weah, FIFA’s player of the year in 1995, let his ego run wild when he  tried to turn his UNICEF goodwill ambassadorship into a run for Liberia’s presidency. He didn’t get elected. Harry Belafonte became an anti-diplomat when at the side of Venezuela’s dictator/ President Hugo Chavez called George W. Bush a terrorist in 2006. That performance negated many of Belafonte’s earlier efforts in his anti-apartheid and civil rights campaigns in the eyes of many red-white-blue loving Americans.

Beyond Celebrity

For those in Africa trying to survive the plunder of corrupt governments the arrival of Hollywood’s dip core might seem a bit ridiculous. They might ask why these stars don’t speak out about abuses closer to tinsel town such as the U.S. missteps at Guantanamo or in Afghanistan. Why don’t they get involved in the impoverished Israeli occupied territories?  For a big name star jumping on those issues could be a career killer or at the least a career dampener, but going to Africa is a safer bet.  The continent has become fertile ground for Hollywood’s bleeding hearts.

Celeb saviors may get Africa’s issues some coverage on the nightly news back in the states, but long term, Africa’s human rights, environmental and health issues are only going to get solved when Africa’s leaders have the guts to seriously take on these issues and stop taking photo-op meetings with visiting A-list stars.