Stopping an Armageddon
Studying in the field of development, it becomes easy to look down at the efforts of celebrities that attempt to bring awareness to, or address the issues around global poverty. Celebrity activism can often merely serve self-interest,
and can occasionally have extremely dangerous ramifications. Does this mean that we should dismiss all efforts made by the likes of Bono and his cohort, or can we see a role for Angelina Jolie in a UN vest?
A quick scan of the discourse on celebrity activism quickly reveals that such a balanced approach is lacking. Mainstream media plainly points to the admirable altruism shown by celebrities who want to make the world a better place. While talk within the aid world often dismisses these same people as ignorant of the issues they claim to be working towards and simply acting to promote their own image.
Either way we should note that the number of celebrities involved with ‘developmental’ causes is now huge and increasing all the time. To tar them all with the same brush would be a serious error. Some examples of celebrity activism have shown that we must be very careful when analysing these projects – Sean Penn’s attempt to independently help the victims of Hurricane Katrina armed with only a dingy and paddle could have been severely dangerous if rescue workers had had to save him, and not actual victims when his boat sprang a leak – more serious is the accusation that funds raised by Bob Geldoff in the mid 80s for Ethiopian famine relief were used to buy more arms, prolonging the conflict and causing significantly more deaths.
Conversely, the work of Bill and Melinda Gates is recognised as being extremely innovative and of much value as a development foundation. Similarly, Oprah Winfrey has given an estimated $301 million to charitable causes to date; a large part of this has funded projects in Sub-Saharan Africa that have had tangible outcomes.
Another case of celebrity activism which is engaging with development in a responsible and consciousness manner is a project recently started by Ben Affleck. The Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) works to support the work of CBOs that are already operating in eastern D.R.C. through awarding grants and providing capacity building support. In this way ECI is using local knowledge and building on what already exists. The role of Affleck has largely been simply to promote the initiative and to help bring the organisations (Humanity United, Jewish World Watch etc) which make up the ECI together (for more).
What makes the initiative all the more unique is the focus on eastern D.R.C. When we have numerous celebrities attaching themselves to the crisis in Darfur, and to a lesser extent northern Uganda, an outspoken voice on the D.R.C., an area that is seldom mentioned in mainstream media, could be pivotal. US support to the area is minimal and uncoordinated, and as previously mentioned on the blog, the UN peace keeping mission is set to leave the
country soon. Accordingly, Affleck could have an important role in bringing the issue to the public in the US, and starting a movement to pressurise the US administration into creating an actual strategy for its activities in the region.
Thus, can we see this initiative by Affleck as part of a responsible and consciousness way for celebrities to get involved in needy causes, or is this just another attempt to promote a celebrity for an upcoming film that will change nothing for the people it claims to help?