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While some forms of celebrity advocacy have propagated powerful economic, social and political interests, celebrities such as Bono have developed international policies to alleviate poverty and facilitate indigenous peoples’ rights of self-determination. They have used their fame to draw public attention to a range of humanitarian and philanthropic activities.
Celebrity activism represents a democratization of foreign policy processes in which the traditional, closed forms of diplomatic practice have been replaced by more open forms of public diplomacy. By operating within a framework of globalism, celebrity activists have placed matters of concern on the international agenda, overriding the self-interest of nation states.
Crucially, celebrities may use soft power techniques to facilitate a ‘politics of attraction’ to reconfigure concepts of global identity, citizenship and solidarity.Celebrity activists can bridge the gap between Western audiences and faraway tragedies by using their fame to publicize these international events. They complement the work of the UN, non-state actors and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by using their charismatic authority to establish an equitable discourse within global civil society.
Bob Geldof ’s Live Aid and Live 8 campaigns are examples of how linking pop music with famine imagery can generate philanthropic activity among the public. Similarly, George Clooney’s support for NGO projects in war-torn Darfur has focused international attention on human rights abuses, brought about reforms to deal with the inequities of wealth and poverty, and affected legal mechanisms to effect resolution to conflicts.
The reason I’m firmly against celebrity charity promotion is that the global charity machine is itself highly problematic: charity allows social inequality to continue unabated. It attends to only the worst and most visible manifestations of inequality, rationalizing global capitalism’s continuous production of poverty, dispossession and unevenness. In other words, charity helps put a ‘human face’ on global inequality. And the problem is compounded when celebrities such as Bono or Geldof are associated with it, since their ‘star power’ and spectacle only further divert public attention from the real social and economic causes of inequality.
This problem is clearly visible in both the examples you cite approvingly. Far from helping the Global South, Live Aid and Live 8 were first and foremost public spectacles aimed at improving the celebrities’ brands, resulting in huge increases in the stars’ record sales. Perhaps more important is the fact that, to date, almost none of the Live 8 commitments on debt or trade justice have been met. As for George Clooney and Darfur, there is now mounting evidence that he and his fellow celebrity collaborators did more harm than good in the region as a result of their over-hyped rhetoric (including demands for military intervention).
So what matters most to celebrity charity is the glitz and glam: it makes celebrities (and our political leaders) look compassionate and caring, while diverting attention away from such uncomfortable issues as the complicity of our own economic and political élites (of which celebrities are now part) in the creation of the very poverty that such charity is intended to address.
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