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.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.
...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.
(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?