Celebrity Activists: A Poor Imitation of UNICEF
The celebrity factor in humanitarian politics is historically a recent phenomenon. The role of celebrities was pioneered by UNICEF in the person of James Grant, who led the way in deploying what he named “˜Goodwill Ambassadors.’ That role has been usurped by recent appearance of celebrity activists who have promoted public profile at the expense of substance.
In the 1980s, the selection and deployment of the Goodwill Ambassadors was carefully undertaken. Grant personally identified celebrities whose backgrounds were substantive, such as Catherine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Richard Attenborough, Harry Belafonte, and Sydney Poitier. All these figures came with their own personal histories of political activism, for example in support of civil rights movements, and were associated with progressive agendas. Above all they were ambassadors to the people affected“”their job was to transmit messages to the populations in need. The choice of the term “˜Goodwill Ambassador’ was judicious as the individuals were deliberative in their approaches targeted to improving specific situations, such as acceleration of vaccinations or the protection of children.
Under Grant’s leadership, the pioneer Goodwill Ambassadors were not fundraisers, which was a minor activity on their part. Their role was not shaming governments but rather encouraging the state to play its proper role. Their engagement was truly successful and UNICEF’s record of achievement in child survival and development speaks to that.
Today we see a different phenomenon. We have a new generation of celebrity activists, self-anointed or profiled by their publicists, but unfortunately also solicited by the UN, whose role is associated with glamour and tabloid identity for constituencies at home. Their main interest and activity revolves around photo ops and soundbites which are justified by the idea that “˜raising awareness’ is America or Europe is worthwhile in and of itself. Publicity is an end in itself not something to be used with consideration in pursuit of other aims. Celebrity activists are more interested in image than substantive issues. They may be perfectly well-meaning individuals, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Because of their thin political background and agendas, the majority of today’s celebrity activists do not pay much attention to the content of what they do. Most of them have busy schedules so the kinds of briefing they receive are limited by their publicists who control their time. In the old days, Goodwill Ambassadors were accountable to the UNICEF Executive Director, who had clear ideas about their roles. Today, the substance is filled by prepackaged briefings provided, and their handlers are a new generation of activists whose political ambitions outweigh their practical usefulness. This new celebrity ascendancy is also coinciding with the emerging of designer activists, whose activism is defined by public relations and media profile, not by the older and distinctly unglamorous forms of activism that drove political emancipation.
The media’s obsession with celebrities gives oxygen to this phenomenon. Partly since the media is having a difficult time in covering African news in a sensible, the media have fallen for the celebrity window into humanitarian stories. It is a short cut that fuels lazy thinking, a short attention span and a simplified storyline. In turn some pundits and oped writers are linking up with this phenomenon to create a powerful paradigm shift. African news stories are interpreted through an ostensibly human interest lens which distils them down to a simplified narrative of heroes, villains and victims.
At a time when Africans are engaged in national politics to an unprecedented degree, the promotion of impossible-to-realize ideals is setting up African democracies for failure. It is understandable that African states find this threatening, because it implies that Africa should not go through the laborious process of building institutions and resolving problems through political means, but should simply jump to adopt external blueprints. It is equally understandable that domestic African civil society leaders find the attraction of joining the celebrity circuit just too tempting, causing them to abandon serious engagement with national political processes. And it is also unsurprising that diaspora leaders, perhaps long-divorced from their domestic constituencies, some of them already susceptible to the lure of extremist positions, who are seeking for ways to become relevant in their home countries, are ready to jump on the celebrity bandwagon.
The end result of the celebrity phenomenon is to reduce Africa to spectacle and Africans to spectators in the destiny of their own continent. It delegitimizes the African state””which must be the mechanism for development and emancipation””and discourages those who try to practice activism in the old-fashioned way.
The original Goodwill Ambassadors were truly envoys, given the task of promoting a humanitarian issue in a country where UNICEF needed a better capacity to communicate with the population. The previous generation of activists were committed individuals who wore out shoe leather speaking at grassroots meetings, organizing action groups, dedicating their lives, sometimes literally, to a political cause. The new breed of celebrities are concerned about profile, not substance””medium first, message to follow. For them, simply making an issue visible is a vindication. The combination of designer activists and the media power and fundraising capacity of celebrities is empowering activism without boundaries.
Sad to say, many leading international organizations have thoughtlessly embraced this change in direction. The deregulation of celebrity endorsement has meant that quality control has slipped and organizations are unwilling to call to account any celebrity sponsor who mis-steps. It is almost as though no agency can be taken seriously without this appeal to populism. There is no doubt that many international organizations needed a breath of fresh air, but the scent of celebrity, fresh from the fashion pages, is the triumph of style over substance.