Angelina Jolie has just been voted the best celebrity humanitarian of 2007. With her role as a UN goodwill ambassador she topped the Reuters poll as the most respected celebrity humanitarian. Other celebs who made it onto the list included U2 singer Bono, Madonna and Bob Geldof.
Of course one never fully knows what motivates the superstars to get involved in such causes. Some would have a genuine concern for the poor and needy, and want to do something about these situations. Others may simply be acting out of guilt, thinking that a few token gestures might make up for their extravagant and lavish lifestyles.
I suppose one can at least be grateful that some of the Hollywoodians and jet setters have a bit of a social conscience. But one can still inquire as to how effective and beneficial such celebrity actions in fact are. Are they making a real difference? Are they perhaps counter-productive? Are they just window dressing?
Writing in the National Interest, Daniel Drezner offers an in-depth look at celebrity humanitarianism. He argues that foreign policy glam is a mixed bag. “There is no doubt that celebrities have the ability to raise the profile of issues near and dear to their hearts. Highlighting a problem is not the same thing as solving it, however – and the celebrity track record at affecting policy outcomes could best be characterized as mixed. Star activism has been reasonably successful at forcing powerful states to pledge action to assist the least-developed countries. It has been less successful at getting states to honor these pledges and not successful at all in affecting other global policy problems.”
There have been some real successes: “In the 1990s, Princess Diana embraced a ban on the use of land mines. Her death became a rallying point that led to Great Britain’s ratification of the 1997 Ottawa Convention to ban the devices. The Jubilee 2000 campaign, which Bono championed, should also count as a success. According to the Center for Global Development, the movement to assist highly indebted poor countries resulted in ‘the most successful industrial-country movement aimed at combating world poverty for many years, perhaps in all recorded history’.”
There have perhaps been more failures however. “While Bono provided an invaluable assist in promoting debt relief, he has not been as successful in his (Product) Red campaign. The idea was for consumers to do good through consumption – by buying iconic products colored red, a portion of the price would go to the UN Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The campaign was launched in January 2006 to great fanfare at Davos. According to Advertising Age, however, it has been a bust: After an estimated $100 million in marketing expenditures, the campaign netted only $18 million. (Product) Red has challenged the validity of these numbers, but the story invited media critiques of the campaign’s strategy, denting its momentum and cachet.”
Often well-meaning celebs are being less than successful in their efforts. “Richard Gere has devoted decades to the cause of Tibetan independence to little avail. Yet with one onstage kiss of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, he did manage to get himself burned in effigy across India – the reverse celebrity problem. On the whole, celebrities have made little headway in bringing peace to the world’s trouble spots.”
And some even resent the celebrity meddling. “Celebrity campaigns are also not always considered a greater good. Development expert William Easterly has argued that the celebrity focus on Africa’s problems has been misguided. By focusing exclusively on the diseases of sub-Saharan Africa, celebrities have unwittingly tarnished an entire continent: ‘[Africans are] not helpless wards waiting for actors and rock stars to rescue them.’ Many African officials and activists share this sentiment, even heckling Bono at a development conference.”
Certainly the celebs can bring attention to an issue, but more is needed than just consciousness-raising. “It is true that star activism can influence the global policy agenda. But as we’ve seen, when it comes to concrete achievements, celebrities have a spotty track record. They face a number of constraints on their ability to affect policy. Most obviously, celebrities might not be the most grounded community of individuals. While some celebrities have mastered the activist game, others seem out of their depth. Hip-hop singer and Live Earth performer Akon admitted to reporters that he didn’t know what it meant to be ‘green’ until the day of the concert. Sean Penn’s recent fact-finding trip to visit Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez served little purpose beyond a story in The New York Times that gently mocked both men.”
Again, socially aware and concerned celebs are probably to be preferred to those who simply wallow in their fame and fortunes, but one must guard against reducing international politics into something a few Hollywood heavyweights can somehow magically transform.
“A deeper problem celebrities face is that the implicit theory of politics that guides their activism does not necessarily apply to all facets of international relations. The goal of most social activism is to bring greater attention to a problem. The assumption is that once people become aware of the problem, there will be a groundswell of support for direct action. This is not how politics necessarily works, particularly in the global realm. Any solution to a problem like global warming, for example, involves significant costs. As people become more aware of the policy problem, it is far from guaranteed that a consensus will emerge about the best way to solve it. It is therefore not surprising that celebs have had their greatest successes in touting humanitarian causes and almost no effect on ending militarized conflicts.”
Celebs with a conscience are better than those without. But when faced with a real crisis, we must ask as Drezner does: “Who would you rather sit next to at your next Council on Foreign Relations roundtable: Henry Kissinger or Angelina Jolie?”