In Africa, we were around thousands of people who have seen a lot of poverty, but they were fun at the end of the day- Angelina Jolie
I used to assume after watching the movie Blood Diamonds [sic] that diamonds were not acceptable to buy from Africa. However, it is the complete opposite! -Kim Karasian after visiting diamond mines in Botswana
I am overwhelmed and inspired by my trip to Malawi and hope that it helps bring attention to how much more the world needs to do to help the children of Africa- Madonna
I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all… They haven`t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.’- Bono
And one more quote from Bono, just because I care so deeply for him and his sunglasses:
Africa is sexy and people need to know that – Bono, The New York Times
Celebrity involvement in development has appeared to have exponentially grown over the past few years. Each month there is another story of an international celebrity donating, building, adopting etc. in Africa:
‘Angelina Jolie builds orphanage with her very own hands’
‘Madonna adopts entire African village’
‘Bono cures AIDS’
The idea of ‘African development’ has materialized in the shape of celebrity causes. Since I am attempting to explore the ways in which development is substantiated in North America or the ‘developed’ world, the involvement of celebrities in development is an interesting topic. The argument in favor of celebrity involvement in ‘African development’ usually follows the logic of why should they not do something positive with their fame and fortune? In their positions of influence, why not draw attention to the dire situations around the world?
Well I, along with help from some all-knowing academics, will tell you why not. With the greater involvement of celebrities in development, academics have busted out of their ivory towers and joined forces to squash this idea of this positive altruism. In their article ‘The Downside of Celebrity Diplomacy: The Neglected Complexity of Development’ Heribert Dieter and Rajiv Kumar explore the relationship between celebrities and development in three particular areas :
First, [they] chart the rise of prominent celebrity activists in international affairs, in particular their impact on development policies of the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Second, [they] examine the competence of celebrities to handle development issues and suggest a more nuanced and less paternalistic approach. Third, [they] consider the legitimacy of celebrity activists and whether these nonelected individuals are well positioned to berate democratically elected governments.
In the first page of their article Dieter and Kumar summarize their argument:
The Irish rock star Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, is not only the front man of the band U2 but has also become the champion of an antipoverty movement with worldwide impact. Bono is supported by US economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has become a global spokesperson for poverty reduction, especially in Africa. Surprisingly, the recipes being suggested by Bono and Sachs are breathtakingly one-dimensional and akin to the sweeping propositions of the 1960s: give aid to Africa, waive debt, and provide education, and the continent will develop. While these remedies may look seductive, unfortunately the reality is far more complex and demands attention to the specific circumstance of each individual country or subregion. Grand ideas for development are a dangerous recipe and may in fact worsen the situation of the poor.
In their argument Dieter and Kumar, raise very important issues regarding celebrity knowledge of development and their portrayal of Africa. I do not doubt that most celebrities involved in ‘development’ are legitimately passionate for the causes they are championing. However, the methods in which they go about addressing the so-called issues are problematic. As argued by Dieter and Kumar, celebrities often offer simplistic solutions:
-Angelina Jolie proposes to build more schools, improve conditions in refugee camps
-Kim Khardasian champions more purchasing of diamonds to fuel African economies
-Madonna raises funds to build more orphanages or improves the lives of African children by bringing them to America
-Bono loudly champions more school, education that is more accessible, more condoms
While there seems to be nothing inherently negative about these suggested methods of ‘developing’ Africa, there ineffectiveness has clearly been illustrated with the reversal of development that has happened over the past century in Africa (In her work Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo reviews how the trillions of dollars of aid pumped into Africa have not improved conditions). Many scholars and development practitioners have argued against the effectiveness of the sort of development championed by celebrities (see Kapoor, Ilan “Participatory Development, Complicity and Desire 2005, Giles Mohan and Kristian Stokke “Participatory Development and Empowerment: the Dangers of Localism 2000). The theories presented by these scholars criticize common participatory frameworks of development and suggest rethinking the concept of development. These critical development theories would imply that celebrities are unqualified to suggest methods of ‘developing’ Africa. But why would we expect them to? Why would individuals who devoted their entire lives to careers based on themselves, suddenly be qualified to address one of the most complex international situations? Dieter and Kumar’s argument that celebrities’ “grand suggestions for development…may infact worsen the situation” is an idea I have wrestled with extensively in my own work. I have reviewed the various ways in which the ‘third world’ is portrayed in the North American media and how these visuals are tied to notions of ‘development’ that are unsustainable and may worsen the situation.
The ways in which celebrities often frame Africa and development fall into these categories:
-Africa as a whole or country
-Africa as destitute
-Africa as rural
-Africa as ‘black’ ( Paulette Goudge’s work The Whiteness of Power: Racism in Third World Development and Aid greatly addresses this topic)
-African development as reliant on us (us being the western world)
Without getting into it too extensively (as I would like to address it over various blog entries), I argue that these representations result in the employment of development methods that ignore the complex histories, cultures and peoples of Africa.
Does building the same orphanage in Sierra Leone and Botswana and Zimbawe make sense?
Does adopting children address the historical, systemic and economic issues that various African nations face?
Is greater access to orphanages and schools improving the overall situation in African countries, or are we missing the target?
And the questions could go on and on.
I believe that celebrity involvement in development, similarly to consumerism, is not conducive to serious knowledge exchange regarding the complexities of development in Africa. It is this same notion of development that is pushed through fair trade products and travel holidays, in which ‘development’ must take place in the ‘third world’. There is often little conversation regarding international economic policies that are detrimental to African countries, North American interest in various African conflicts, or implications of colonial histories in current ideas of development. Dieter and Kumar elegantly summarize my sentiments when they suggest that:
Celebrities’ contemporary calls to ‘make poverty history’ in Africa are so widely repeated and commonsensical that questions about the exceptionality of this humanitarian action itself rarely arise.
Celebrities are contributing to this understanding of development that must take place in the ‘third world’. The discourse of ‘they are the problem and we will help them’, is continually being disseminated to a population who worships celebrities. I believe that celebrities interested in aiding Africa, should stick to acting, singing or fashion and be involved in ‘development’ by giving some of the outrageous amount of money they make to development professionals, academics or people like myself…