"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


celebrity humanitarianism

Yesterday, @vijramachandran tweeted the news: "Finally, an actual research paper on 'celebrity humanitarianism.'"

Indeed, Riina Yrjölä of the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) has a paper in the World Political Science Review. Its title is: "The Invisible Violence of Celebrity Humanitarianism: Soft Images and Hard Words in the Making and Unmaking of Africa." From the abstract:
Through their actions to eliminate extreme poverty and preventable diseases in Africa, Irish musicians Robert (Bob) Geldof and Bono (Paul David Hewson) today form a visible and celebrated centre in the world of humanitarianism as ‘political activists,' ‘celebrity diplomats,' ‘global Samaritans,' men who, to quote former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, ‘rock the establishment' (TIME 13.11.2006). Their 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. In fact, despite the increasing visibility of celebrity humanitarianism, no research on their representations and truth-claims has been done among political scientists.

...The article argues that, while Geldof and Bono do push for economic changes for Africa, the spatio-temporality of their imaginaries and interpretations on Africa elaborate a colonial imaginary by (re)producing Africa as a specifically Western project and calling. By repeating and circulating the vocabulary of humanitarianism as a moral duty in combination with the engagement in power politics, these discourses not only serve a purpose in the maintenance of hegemonic Western activity in Africa, but are also instrumental in constructing consensus for the existing world order, where the global South is, and remains, in a subordinate position to the West.
I'll take the liberty of providing a brief paraphrase of the above for those of you who don't speak po-mo. Examining the cases of Geldof and Bono, Yrjölä argues that even though these celebrities have the best of intentions for helping African economic development, the ways that they talk about Africa and their focus on the idea that Westerners need to "save Africa" essentially functions another form of colonialism and reinforces the Western monopoly on power.

(Academic friends, was that fair?)

Yrjölä is correct in her point that there is no political science research on this topic. I'm not a constructivist (at all), but I'm working on an academic article about advocacy and have been thinking quite a bit lately about how the projection of the "save Africa" narrative that is so prevalent in Western advocacy might be affecting the kind of research that gets done and the means by which it is conducted. The way you see the world affects the kinds of facts you gather. Academics are trained to gather data in as non-partial a fashion as possible, but advocates work differently.

Celebrities, meanwhile, don't typically engage in data-gathering at all. Most tend to grab hold of the most readily accessible information available and treat it as gospel truth. So it's no wonder that we come to remarkably different conclusions about appropriate policies to pursue. I'll be posting more on this in the weeks to come, because I think it might explain quite a bit. I'd love your thoughts on any of it.

What do you think about Yrjölä's argument? Does the dominant celebrity narrative about Africa function as neo-colonialism?


Blogger Claude Van Inkins said...

I think its absolutely correct to point out that it people like Bono keep the image of Africa as a victim sustained in the mind of most people in the West, and it is especially pronounced in post-colonial countries such as Britain. I know you can say its ok because it is well intentioned, but it contributes to the de-politicisation of Africa (the country!) and her people: Because they are so helpless, they have no agency over their situation. Following this, westerners have to fill this vacuum to help them, thus western intervention in the name of development - most of which is incredibly socially intrusive - is legitimised.

But of course humanatrianism - the power to save or not to save - is inherently political and a projection of power. Whether or not this serves the West's interests (does colonialism or imperialism always have to?) I think it is fairly indisputable.

Intentions here are irrelevant: colonial officers all over Africa, much like NGO workers today, thought and truly believed what they were doing was morally right. But I'm sure they too, like us NGO people today, had a sneaking and horribly self-defeating suspicion that not all was right, but didn't know what the answer was. Luckily for them, they didn't need to find it as it was politicised Africans who came up with the answer.


Friday, March 12, 2010 5:14:00 AM

Blogger Ryan Knight said...

South Park episode 1109 pretty much sums up my views on Bono's activism...

Friday, March 12, 2010 6:04:00 AM

Blogger UPennBen said...

I have never seen any pomo theory that is useful. Your sentence was better. Pomo is only useful in literature, when it is practice, not theory. And even then, it's not often very good unless written by a master.

Friday, March 12, 2010 8:06:00 AM

Anonymous Alanna said...

I think the other problem with celebrity support for causes is that it has to serve the need of the celebrity to look altruistic and generous. So it always has to be couched in terms of pure generosity, ignoring the real benefits to the donor of living in a healthier, more stable world. It can never be a partnership, because being a partner in a mutually beneficial situation doesn't make the celebrity look saintly.

Friday, March 12, 2010 12:07:00 PM

Anonymous @booksquirm said...

I must apologise for the length of this response – I did look for an email address so I could send the reference list.

Yrjölä’s paper looks like a welcome addition to a tiny field that can be too easily filled with hearsay posing as insight.

I’ve just finished a paper arguing that the influence on other celebrity activists of Bono and Geldof’s organisations is problematic. The success of their approaches, in terms of publicity and fundraising, have had a homogenising effect, making it difficult for other organisations to be heard if they want to tell different stories about anything on which the ONE campaign works. Positive alternatives include Danny Glover’s Louverture Films and Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD and Real World Records, all of which help marginalised people and stories/music access Western audiences directly – they enable people to tell their own stories in their own words.

Much as I oppose Bono and Geldof’s methods, personal attacks on them are misguided. They don’t work alone and they wouldn’t have been successful if no one agreed with what they were doing. Many NGO comms teams appear to share ONE’s low estimations of their audiences’ intelligence and too many NGO leaders appear to have taken a ‘whatever brings in the money and doesn’t scare the donors’ position, without considering how it might undermine their development objectives.

It’s a small aside but I’ve interviewed a few celebrities on their activism and the mix of clueless, confused and really well informed seems much the same as with non-famous people.

Anyway, here are a few things I’ve found useful, to add to Yrjölä’s impressive reading list:

Hague S, Street J & Savigny H, ‘The Voice of the People? Musicians as Political Actors’, Cultural Politics, vol. 4, issue 1, 2008, pp. 5-24.
- argues for parallels between Live Aid/ Live 8 and post-democracy

Huliaras A & Tzifakis N, The Dynamics of Celebrity Activism: Mia Farrow and the ‘Genocide Olympics’ Campaign, Karamanlis Working Papers in Hellenic and European Studies, No. 7. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Medford, Massachusetts, July 2008.
- changing forms of activism

Tenove C, ‘Stars Above Africa’, The Walrus Magazine, 11 December 2006.
- not academic but raises good points about accountability

Carnie, C. (2003) Cause Celeb. Available from the author at http://www.causeceleb.co.uk/
- an insider view from a former UNICEF celeb liaison person

Dickenson B, Hollywood’s New Radicalism. War, Globalisation and the Movies from Regan to George W. Bush, I.B. Tauris, London, 2006.
- how the US film industry has shaped and been shaped by celebrity activism

Also, Jolie’s ‘Notes from My Travels’ and Cheadle and Prendergast’s ‘Not On Our Watch’ are much better than snippets in showbiz interviews

There was a good public lecture at the LSE last year called ‘Celebrities and Aid: new humanitarians or just another fad?’ Here’s the recording:

This is an interview between Bono and George Clooney, where among other things, they discuss their approach to activism:

Dan Brockington’s book ‘Celebrity and the Environment’ is also v good

Lisa Ann Richey has a book in production called ‘Brand Aid: Celebrities, Consumption and Development’

Huliaras, Frangonikolopoulos and Tsaliki are compiling a book about celebrity activism at the moment, in which I have a small chapter and I’m hoping it comes out this year or next.

At the moment I’m seeing parallels between much current celeb activism and @mattbish’s philanthrocapitalism, which can be critiqued with some of @edwarmi’s points of caution. There also appear to be possible links between the post-democracy critique of Live Aid/Live 8 and Chouliaraki’s recent paper on post-humanitarian communications.

Friday, March 12, 2010 5:28:00 PM

Anonymous J. said...

First, you know from reading my blog that I'm as exasperated with Celebrity Advocacy as any aid worker out there. That said, it seems to me that there is Celebrity Advocacy and then again, there is Celebrity Advocacy. While they both annoy me in different ways, I can't quite bring myself to lump, say, Angelina Jolie (whom I understand to be quite well-read) and her refugees cause in with, say, Jessica Simpson and that God-awful "shoes for Haiti" thing. I'd be genuinely curious for your thoughts on whether it's zero-sum Celebrity Advocacy is harmful across the board, shades of grey, or some definitely harmful while others helpful?

Second, while I do get the pomo discourse-based exotification reinforcing Western hegemony bit (and I actually do buy it), it seems like the logical conclusion of what Yrjola is saying (and you, too, I guess) is the postmodern crisis: no one can say anything about anything; all perspectives are equally INvalid. Not Bono, not Kristof... not even you or me. Once again, genuinely interested in where you suggest drawing the lines between what can and should be said about terrible things that happen and conditions that do exist, and what only serves to reinforce stereotypes, who can say what on behalf of whom, and so on?

Friday, March 12, 2010 7:34:00 PM

Anonymous Carla Murphy said...

does it matter if celeb advocacy is neo-colonialism? strikes me as a question for the classroom. i tend to look at celeb advocacy as a symptom of a structural problem: development is more donor-driven than needs-based. seen from that angle, celeb advocacy makes sense. i'm going to go w/J here, and argue then, for a distinction. which celebs and partnering outlets do a good job? which don't? how can development professionals help the latter?

Friday, March 12, 2010 10:11:00 PM

Anonymous @booksquirm said...

To focus exclusively on neo colonialism misses out the critiques of celebrity activism in the areas of disability (e.g. http://www.dimenet.com/disculture/archive.php?mode=N&id=17 ) and poverty in the West (e.g. http://mcs.sagepub.com/cgi/pdf_extract/18/1/47), which have many overlaps and move the debate more towards how the powerful conceptualise and act on helping the disempowered.

The neo colonial element is a lot more relevant in relation to the fact that most celebrity activists work with or within NGOs, where many appear to be keen to do exactly what the NGO tells them to do. I agree with Claude Van Inkins: humanitarianism is inherently political and a projection of power. People working within that system will work the way the system works. Carnie writes of the frustration felt by celebrities at being kept in the position of merely a circus that rolls into town and then moves on. In Bono and Geldof’s cases, I don’t see the images and messages they use as being that different to many if not most Western NGO advertising. Look on the boards and leadership teams of their and other celebrity activist’s organisations and you will find NGO and foundation people.

The fact that so much debate on celebrity activism focuses on Bono and Geldof reinforces the neo colonialism that it critiques. I’d love to see studies on the work of, e.g. Angelique Kidjo, Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour, who I imagine are much better known for their humanitarian work, by Africans, than Geldof or Bono.

Saturday, March 13, 2010 8:18:00 AM

Blogger Jason Stearns said...

I blogged on celebrity activism here: http://congosiasa.blogspot.com/2009/11/is-celebrity-activism-useful.html

In any case, we have to get used to it, it's probably here to stay. Agents are telling actors that it's good for their careers, and the media love it. The question is: is increased attention = better policy? Not necessarily. But it also isn't necessarily bad. A lot of us policy wonks love to hate celebs, but a lot of the critiques above could also be applied to established charities and donors.

Monday, March 15, 2010 8:08:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Sunday, March 21, 2010 11:34:00 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Here's a slightly different perspective:


Wednesday, March 24, 2010 5:41:00 AM

Blogger Rosiroo said...

"while Geldof and Bono do push for economic changes for Africa, the spatio-temporality of their imaginaries and interpretations on Africa elaborate a colonial imaginary by (re)producing Africa as a specifically Western project and calling"

words can't describe how much I agree with this paragraph. so true.

Friday, May 20, 2011 10:28:00 AM


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