No, unfortunately I’m not talking about a superhero A-team including of Beyoncé and David Beckham in tight, bright lycra. Or maybe I am. The rich and famous doing work for charities and fundraising is often portrayed as something not far off martyrdom, so representing them as actual superheroes is not the most far-fetched element of this piece. But does the support and advocacy of NGOs by the rich and famous always contribute to their causes as positively as the media conveys, or does it merely strengthen the polarities and concepts of ‘us and them’, or ‘the West and the rest’, by a poor African child being given a meal by a beautiful, flawless Hollywood A-lister?
Celebrity philanthropists are certainly not a new phenomenon. Edward G. Robinson, the thirties star of the black-and-white era Hollywood, who made 101 films in his 50-year career (1) donated more than US$ 250,000 to 850 political and charitable groups between 1939 and 1949 (2). This is one of many early examples. To many- myself included- it makes a lot of sense that those with vast amounts of money use at least a small proportion of it for the benefit of others. But for which reasons might these charity benefactors be created? Of course, it could be wholly based on the individuals’ good will, with no ulterior motives whatsoever. But it is unlikely that self-righteousness and the prospect of ‘good press’ do not feature in the donors’ minds, not least because the PR teams of each celebrity constantly want to ensure a spotless reputation for their money-making employers. Some examples of celebrities and the organisations they promote:
British tennis player Andy Murray is a member of the Malaria No More UK Leadership Council.
Beyoncé Knowles, along with Kelly Rowland founded the (somewhat humorously-named) Survivor Foundation, for family disaster relief.
And one of the most famous and highest-paid footballers of all time, David Beckham, has worked with a number of international aid bodies, including UNICEF, Comic Relief, and Red Cross.
Before shoving potential cynicism at celebrity ‘do-gooders’, it is imperative to understand the kind of work that is done. In the UK, we are showered with images and stories of our household names- including those from across the pond- raising money and awareness by essentially being fabulous and asking for donations for just that. Consider Red Nose Day, which has become somewhat of a nation-wide event where families sit together and watch-amidst videos of impoverished Africans and suffering Brits- famous people (especially comedians) making fools out of themselves for financial contributions. It works. In 2011, the money raised by the British public was a record-breaking £108.4 million. (7) In terms of fundraising, this is fantastic. The benefit of using celebrities to front a campaign is that people are more likely to listen to them (and therefore donate money, or take on board their messages) than if the same things were said by relatively unknown heads of NGOs, regardless of how charismatic a speaker they might be.
As celebrities are unbound by political constraints- coupled with support from the public- this means they have the opportunity of free access to a variety of organisations and means of sharing their opinions. As the Guardian puts it, ‘Few politicians get asked on to popular shows such as Oprah, but the right celebrity can’ (8)
Celebrity activists can raise the profiles of campaigns that otherwise would have little to no attention given by the public, particularly if the cause is far away. Doubtless, if the 2004 Boxing day tsunami had not been given 24 hour media coverage of the relief efforts, with celebrity help, much less money would have been raised, ergo limiting the relief programmes. I for one do not want to think of the extent at which this might have been true.
The 2004 tsunami is also a good example of how fickle the all-powerful media industry can be. ‘For example, private donations to relief agencies during the early stages of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 had been sufficient to support approximately one million displaced Rwandans, but after the tribulations of O.J. Simpson and Tanya Harding eclipsed Rwanda in international news, funding for relief activities began to decline’ (10)
This is one of many examples that warn that through celebrity intervention, ‘politics becomes mere entertainment, [and] the danger is that society loses its ability to solve pressing social problems.’ (11)
There lies a catch-22 in that although celebrity efforts can get lots and lots of funding that would probably not be possible- or at least not as easy to obtain- without them, it also poses the problem of strengthening schisms between the giver and the receiver. Think about how each ‘side’ is represented to the other. In the UK, at least, we are bombarded with the notion that all Ethiopians live in mud huts and that all their ribs are visible. Naturally, to get the most donations, the people in the most disadvantaged situations are filmed (with accompanying melancholy music by Take That or Adele, which crescendos towards the end when the celebrity voice-over in question mentions just as monthly donations are mentioned). This is to generate the most sympathy, essentially- nobody wants to donate to well-fed Ethiopians studying hard to get into one of Ethiopia’s university institutions (of which, by the way, there are many (12) ). These people understand how they are being portrayed. Helpless, desperate, starving and uneducated, with flies on their faces. The very notion of this humanitarian work seems is questionable, as there can certainly be more than a slightly pervading sense of pity. Of course, there are people who need help. We have ALL been in situations where we are struggling, and would not turn down a helping hand. Perhaps we could not carry seventeen shopping bags up five flights of stairs, or really just didn’t “get” that last algebra equation. Pretty much everyone would accept help if offered. But perhaps not if it was under the pretence that we really are pathetic and hopeless- we just needed someone to take maybe three or four of the bags, or to show us how to ‘complete the square’. We shouldn’t be made to feel ASHAMED for needing or accepting help. If shame was a clause of the agreement, many would turn it down, to save humiliation. There is still a question of peoples’ PRIDE here, which is amplified with the juxtaposition of Western celebrity philanthropists and swathes of children suffering in favelas or shanty towns.
And as for the converse, how should the beneficiaries see their donors? As God-sends? An answer to their prayers? How both partners in the donor-recipient relationship are perceived needs to be given more consideration. It is clear that the fiscal contributions of celebrities can be bountifully useful in funding projects worldwide, which are often successful- think Red Nose Day. However, I believe there are other uses of celebrity influence which might be more successful in the fight for poverty reduction, rather than merely continuing to plead for money… Fighting for campaigns for universal education, social reform or dropping international debts, suggesting for a re-evaluation of trade blocs and barriers to free up access for trade… All elements which will could also contribute to the improvements of peoples’ lives, without directly reinforcing stereotypes. Celebrities could effectively gather enough worldwide support to pass great movements.
Jamie Oliver set up his global charity, Better Food Foundation which is more along the lines suggested, as it educates people on food, nutrition, and food culture. It is not just a one-time gift.
Or, to omit any ulterior motives, perhaps celebrities could give more of their own money to worthwhile causes or campaigns…anonymously (like any true superhero)?
4,5,6- http://www.shortlist.com/entertainment/superhero Images: James Husbands
10- Brown, P., and Minty, M., (2oo6 ) ‘Media Coverage & Charitable Giving After the 2004 Tsunami’ William Davidson Institute Working Paper Number 855
11- http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/events/2007/8/01sustainable%20development/2007west.pdf West, D.M., (2007) ‘ANGELINA, MIA, AND BONO: CELEBRITIES AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT’ , Session II: Angelina, Bono, and Me: New Vehicles to Engage the Public, Washington D.C
13- http://www.shortlist.com/entertainment/superhero Images: James Husbands