A dilemma: do celebrities have the power to save the world?

What is this video suggesting? That our help is needed to save these poor people in poverty stricken areas? That we should follow the charitable example of these celebrities? This video is one of the hundreds made to emotionally evoke watchers to pledge support to the cause. But what is the cause?

Recently in the past two decades the celebrity culture has become more transnational and globalised which has created an attitude of cosmopolitan caring. (Littler, J. 2008) It has now become incredibly fashionable for celebrities to ‘do good’ and be seen as charitable. For many people, celebrities represent ‘us’ and bridge the seemingly large gap between us and them, rich and poor by providing emotional access to scenes of horror around the world. (Littler, J. 2008) The participation and use of celebrities in development work has only recently been academically critiqued and there is widespread and popular criticism amongst many people working in development both in ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations.

Undeniably, however the world that we live in today is one where celebrities wield huge amounts of power and can influence many forms of society which is why the issue of celebrities and development is so complex, due to their influence in politics, culture and the world. As Bob Geldof said the ‘cult of celebrity [is] now a currency, you could spend that currency’. It is recognised that celebrities and development are inextricable linked and one of the advantages of having a celebrity face to a campaign is the opportunities for media and publicity. Dan Brockington believes that a well-known celebrity can bring endorsements to the campaign and make a campaign or issue glamorous to the general public.angelina jolie As Geldof describes, celebrities have become marketable icons that can sell their image to create engagement in politically sensitive subjects such as refugees and environmentalism. (Littler, J. 2008) This creates a new audience for charities that they previously been would have been out-of-touch with. Celebrities have the potential to change public discourse and focus or refresh the images of long running campaigns to gain more public awareness and support.

There are issues with what messages celebrities portray to the media of the campaigns they are supporting. The most common message of celebrities is to encourage the public to donate money which is a form of aid. Of course, aid is not necessarily a bad thing but these large sums of money generated by the public do not necessarily help to instigate development. One of the most famous examples of celebrity power used to create world-wide awareness and raise money for a cause was Live Aid in 1985 however the $1 billion raised saved thousands of lives, many argue but did very little for the long term establishment of development in Ethiopia. Huge criticisms were cast on the well-intentioned causes as most of the food provided went to the military regime, so unintentionally supporting the regime that was killing thousands of people.

Another issue with celebrity advocacy is the images of vulnerable people or areas in the world. The images portrayed by Live Aid were ones of Africa as one identity that should be pitied. ethiopiaThe images of starving children damage the whole continent and ignore the positive changes that being done across the continent. Critics argue that it is very easy for the role of a celebrity in a campaign to over simplify the complexities of the issues and create the impression that charities only have one line of focus. This simplification of the issues that celebrities take part in is shown as the media often only focuses on development when there have been times of crisis or emergencies and therefore stories only provide narrow and specific information. (Richey, L and Ponte, S. 2011) geldof-africaThis can therefore undermine the work of the grass-root organisation or NGO that is working in the area which means that many organisations lament working with celebrities as they cause more harm than good, even with the publicity and added public awareness.

Can celebrities be involved in development? Yes I believe they can. However, there needs to an understanding from both parties the organisation and the celebrity of their role in order to avoid hindering the development work in place. The added awareness of world issues is important but it is vital less fashionable issues are also shown so effective development can take place.

Littler, Jo ‘I feel your pain: Celebrity do-gooding, cosmopolitan caring and the globalised soul’, Social Semiotics, 2008 18(2): 237-251
Richey, Lisa Ann and Stefano Ponte (2008) ‘Better (Red)TM than Dead? Celebrities, consumption and international aid’, Third World Quarterly, 29:4, 711-729.

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