Aid celebrities and the tropes of celebrity humanitarianism

Date: 28 August 2020

Author: Maha Rafi Atal, Lisa Ann Richey and Dan Brockington

Photo credit: IBWK Conférence de presse Jeux de Dupes (Leatherheads), Paris, 11 April 20O8

George Clooney is sad. What might an Oscar winning multi-millionaire have to be sad about, you ask? He’s “surprised and saddened” he says, to learn that Nespresso, the coffee brand for whom he has been a public spokesman since 2006, uses child labour at its plantations in Guatemala. That is particularly embarrassing for Clooney, whose brand endorsement has included advocating for Nespresso’s sustainability policies and sitting on its sustainability board.

Clooney assures the reporters who uncovered these violations that he welcomes the investigative scrutiny, and that the offending plantations will be immediately removed from the Nespresso supply chain until the problem can be solved.

This is not Clooney’s first brush with global humanitarian problems, nor the first time the projects he takes on have fallen short of their professed ideals. In the mid-2000s, he became the leading celebrity face of Save Darfur, the Enough Project, and other campaigns aimed at raising awareness first about atrocities committed by the Omar al-Bashir government in Sudan’s civil war, and later about similar atrocities in other African countries.

These information-gathering and dissemination ventures have raised significant funds, paired Clooney with many celebrity friends from Matt Damon to Don Cheadle, and faced sustained criticism from regional experts for simplistic solutions that brushed aside the actual politics and history of African countries.

This type of advocacy, we argue in a recent research article, is typical of Aid Celebrities, a particular type of famous humanitarian for whom difficult problems are the result of a lack of resources and expertise.

Sudanese generals and Guatemalan plantation owners, this view holds, can be made to change their ways if better technology, paid for by extensive fundraising, is used to expose what is going wrong. This approach, which is equally apparent in the work of aid “experts” like Jeffrey Sachs and Muhammad Yunus, draws attention away from the political problems that are the real roots of humanitarian crisis.

Aid Celebrities, we argue, are just one of six common types of celebrity humanitarians, each with their own way of thinking about what the “problem” is and how they can be the solution.

The others include:

  • Global Mothers, like Angelina Jolie and Audrey Hepburn, for whom the solution is “love.” These white women embody hope by foregrounding their own beauty and their feelings and taking up causes that emphasise support for children.

  • Strong Men Doing Good, like Sean Penn and Ben Affleck, for whom the solution is power, as an extensive of their own masculine identities blazing through problems with little concern for listening, stock-taking or collaboration, which are cast as feminine.

  • Diplomats, like Pu Cuxin and Danny Kaye, for whom the solution is institutions. The most common, but often least radical, form of celebrity humanitarian, these figures work as representatives inside formal political institutions.

  • Entrepreneurs, like Sophie Ndaba, for whom the solution is money, promoting their own business successes as justification for giving back to the community.

  • Afropolitians, like Hella Joof or Teju Cole, for whom the solution is awareness. These celebrities walk a difficult tightrope raising awareness about racial injustice without drawing attention to their own “raced” status as members of oppressed minorities.

What value is there in breaking down these different celebrity types? In our research, we find that the different types of advocacy they undertake and the way they frame the “problem” and “solution” have much more to do with the audiences these celebrities hope to reach in the Global North than with the communities in the Global South who are supposed to benefit from humanitarian aid.

Celebrities, after all, are performers, and the audiences for their performances are ultimately global elites. These audiences want to see celebrity humanitarians as authentic, taking advantage of their identity as mothers or macho men or entrepreneurs, to increase their credibility with donors and fans. This is common in humanitarianism, which is rarely downwardly accountable to the people receiving support, and more normally upwardly accountable to investors and donors.

Our point is not that celebrity humanitarianism is somehow inauthentic, or that more authentic celebrity humanitarianism should be more powerful. Rather, problems arise from the lack of accountability, or the mechanisms by which accountability is diverted and distorted.

Celebrities are oligarchs in the attention economy. Whether they are from the North or South, celebrity humanitarians usurp the power of voice—of who gets to call out a problem and who should solve it. They all draw attention away from the structural causes of inequalities and the outrage and obscenity of crises.

The result, we argue, is that celebrity humanitarianism, rather than “helping” communities in the Global South, tends to reproduce the same hierarchies and inequalities between the Global North and South that are themselves drivers of humanitarian harm.

Celebrity humanitarianism is a way of doing ‘politics as usual’ which prioritises rich special interests, corporate lobbyists and elite networks. It can be convenient, it can ‘work’ in its own terms. But the limited range of celebrity humanitarian tropes can offer audiences comfortable lies when what humanitarianism needs is local knowledge, inconvenient facts and diverse effective responses.

Celebrities require critical attention to how they reflect and distort social relations, lines of accountability and political priorities. From Ebola to landmines and from accountability to racism, you can learn more about celebrity humanitarianism, advocacy and development and how to teach about these topics in the classroom using the resources on the Understanding Celebrity Humanitarianism and Celebrity Advocacy website.

This blog was originally published in the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies website on 27 August 2020.