The shortcomings of celebrities as humanitarian heroes

Secretary-General Meets Actor and Humanitarian Sean Penn at Haiti IDP Camp

Actor Sean Penn transformed into heroic aid worker Sean Penn in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. His brash style and celebrity persona conspired to give him quick access to big players and media. In some cases it worked well. The Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) set up shop quickly in the aftermath, Penn declared he was not leaving, he won the respect of many in the aid community and he assumed leadership of a displacement camp.

The same things that worked for Penn worked against him, says Jonathan Katz in Gawker. He is an AP reporter who was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake and stuck around after to track the response.

A doctor at a J/P HRO-run clinic above the Pétionville Club golf course diagnosed a young boy with diphtheria. The fifteen year old, Oriel, arrived at a time when Penn was visiting. The actor sprung into action to save the boy’s life and respond to a potential outbreak.  He set out to get a dose of diphtheria antitoxin (DAT) from a warehouse run by the WHO and the Haitian ministry of health. He was able to get the DAT, despite the warehouse having been already closed.

The boy sadly died, but Penn was upset. He was worried about an outbreak and the slow response. So he took to media to raise an alarm. Problem was that Penn is not a health expert. There was not outbreak coming.

Penn’s outrage was understandable. Had the NGOs coordinated or had there been a healthcare system Oriel’s parents could have turned to days before, the boy might have lived. But no diphtheria epidemic broke out, nor did medical experts expect one. The megaphone that enabled Penn to procure extraordinary help for the boy also made his unscientific pronouncements more reckless, adding another dose of panic to an already panic-driven response.

Katz shows both the power and problems of well meaning celebrities like Penn. He concludes that Penn may be right, but the desire to pat him and other celebrities on their backs for their humanitarian work may gloss over the truth.

There is no denying that some of the work by these new celebrity power players sometimes does good. It may even be, as Penn has often argued, that it need not be more pernicious or less effective than those of the “professionals”—after all, career foreign policy and development people have made plenty of messes on their own. But we’re all a little too fond of slapping medals or accolades on the famous set, ratifying their half-baked interventions because we think, after years of worshiping in the gossip mags and on the big screen, we know them.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]