Celebrity sells. In a world driven by and fixated on celebrity, actors and musicians sell us more than entertainment, perfume and clothes. They also sell us charities.
Using celebs as ambassadors is not new, but what began as a tool for raising funds and awareness is now also a way for fans to feel closer to their “idols”; dig into your pockets and donate to a cause your celeb feels “passionate about” so you can Tweet about it to show everyone you and your celeb are on the same wavelength. But even if people are donating for the wrong reasons, at least they’re giving, right?
I’m not so sure. Since Africa and charity are synonymous in the minds of many – and charities themselves are partly to blame for this – many of these campaigns are “on behalf of” the continent. But how much of what is raised is actually going to the continent? And do celebrities actually help or hinder these charities?
It’s a tricky subject, charity, I commend people who devote their time to making the world a better place, but, truth be told, not everyone or every organisation in the charity industry is there for noble reasons.
I know the industry is easy to attack if you don’t have the full details of every campaign. I also don’t want to tar all charities with the same brush. There are some good ones out there doing commendable work, but there are also many that really ought to be called businesses if one compares the amount disbursed to the amount that is eaten up by expenses and salaries.
A lot of money is being made “for us”, but it’s not always easy to see what this money is being spent on. Perhaps I don’t see these “good works” because I don’t live in a rural area. I don’t think that’s the case though. It’s only when I am outside Africa that I’m really aware of all the projects and campaigns running on behalf of the continent. Something doesn’t seem right about that.
That we sometimes see no evidence of the benefits of a campaign in Africa is partly to do with transparency. Everyone - donors, recipients, armchair critics, and the media ought to be able to see how much of the donations are going towards administration costs and staff luxuries.
Something else more charities should be held accountable for are the solutions they implement. No one is served by solutions that focus so narrowly on a problem that they fail to take account of associated factors that are part of the context of the problem.
I remember watching the Malaria No More campaign featuring David Beckham.
While the advert got a lot of attention, I couldn’t help but be cynical. I’ve witnessed mosquito-net distribution by large organisations. I was in a small village in Uganda as nets were being thrown from a huge truck while people waved and smiled, arms outstretched to catch their net. At the time it felt good to see, I felt positive and optimistic, only to learn that a large number of these nets ended up being sold to fishermen and even seamstresses for wedding dresses. Whose fault was that? Was it the charity’s for coming up with a solution that didn’t include figuring out how to make the villagers understand that these nets could save their lives?) Was it the villagers themselves? Or the celebrity for fronting a campaign that was full of holes?
Last year I met a group of young women travelling to Arua, Uganda to encourage mothers to use nets for their babies and young children. They returned shocked at what they found. For a start, the three families had no beds, and poor roofing meant pools of water gathered in the house, perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. So what did they do? They bought beds and bedding, fixed their roofs, and then two months later supplied the nets. I commend this type of hands on charity. It requires genuine dedication, applies logic and addresses a number of major factors connected to the issue at hand. I don’t know how well the educational aspect was covered, so perhaps after all that hard work the nets ended up being sold anyway. But still, at least some of their work left a stronger foundation in place. At least these women knew that the chances of those nets being put to use as planned were higher than if they’d just turned up and left the nets on doorsteps.
Debates about the best way to distribute mosquito nets rage on, as they do about other major issues. Do you give out free condoms or do you educate people about safe sex? When do you help and when do you teach others how to help themselves?
Do I believe that grassroots operations achieve more than larger organizations with the capacity to hire ambassadors like Beckham? Yes. And my belief is only strengthened when I see large-scale organisations like Bono’s ONE claiming to operate at a grassroots level and then being exposed for giving as little as 1.2 percent of funds raised to the main cause.
Every country is different, and every campaign has to consider variations in the literacy rates, cultural and religious habits and preferences of those it’s addressing. And the understanding of those variations tend to occur more often at the grassroots level. Nike, South Africa may promote AIDS-awareness like this
whereas the One Love campaign in Uganda might do it like this
We can’t always give sacks of rice for famine or piles of nets for malaria, what may work in one area may fail in another, not to mention different countries.
Perhaps when charities are looking for spokespeople and ambassadors they should look to Africans as well. They should look at our “celebrities” and prominent figures, people who understand Africa far better than any celebrity visiting for charity projects who's rushing from 5-star hotel to disease-ridden village and back again to the 5-star hotel. Our celebrities, in my opinion, have a responsibility to their countries, whether they live in them or not. That way communication doesn’t just stop at a TV ad or a glitzy campaign. People from beyond the continent can help with a fresh perspective but, truly, nobody knows the problems we face as well as an African does. We don’t only know about the corruption, we know who the main culprits are. We know who will waste the money; we know where the real thieves live. An African celebrity doesn’t need to look at a picture of a starving child to feel empathetic; they probably don’t have to look much further than their own village. Youssou N’dour as a UNICEF ambassador makes sense.
He may not prove as popular on twitter as Lady Gaga, but I believe his interests in improving Africa are more genuine.
Author of Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo, has been highly critical of celebrity campaigns:
“[I] was at a party to raise money for Africans, and there were no Africans in the room, except for me… I’ll make a general comment about this whole dependence on celebrities. I object to this situation as it is right now where they have inadvertently or manipulatively become the spokespeople for the African continent.”
It must be quite a dilemma for celebrities though. Make millions but give nothing away and you’re branded selfish. Make millions and try to give something away by starting a non-profit organisation or fronting a campaign and you’re just doing it to buff up your image. We never really know why anyone does anything, so I’ll give those who’ve attached themselves to the ineffective campaigns and inefficient non-profits the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, the responsibility rests with the organisations. Every organisation has expenses that need to be met, I understand this. But I can’t pretend not to see all the 4X4s, luxury staff accommodation, perks and benefits. We are talking billions of dollars worth of charity/aid money being pumped into Africa.
I think we deserve to know where this money is.