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The marginal impact of celebrity on humanitarian campaigns

George Clooney arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington, DC.

Celebrities are often used as eye candy for charity campaigns and giant advocacy efforts.

Remarks from actress Angelina Jolie are released alongside comments from the UN on the number of Syrian refugees surpassing the 2 million mark this week. Mia Farrow vocally campaigned against China in the run up to the 2008 Olympics in response to their support of the brutal regime in Sudan.

George Clooney also made Sudan his point of focus, Ben Affleck has the DR Congo, Princess Diana campaigned to end landmines and Bono wants to end extreme poverty.

Using celebrities does have an impact, but not how you may have expected.

They do have a small impact on humanitarian events, but generally serve as amplification tools for existing organizations and campaigns. In some way, the Hollywood set use their celebrity to reach audience by putting their ability to represent an idea created by someone else to the public. It is a lot like acting in a film.

Researchers Asteris Huliaras and Nikolaos Tzifakis published a pair of papers (both gated) that look at celebrity impact on international relations and specifically at how Clooney and Farrow played a part in the Save Darfur effort. Personal experiences and the ability to gain access to higher levels in the political latter make it easier for celebrities to remain local in their reach while traveling to and connecting with international issues.

The role of celebrity is oft debated in humanitarian circles. NYU Economist Bill Easterly is one of the more vocal critics of using celebrities in support of aid and humanitarian efforts. He says that they amplify the simplistic idea of the basket case that is Africa. A homogeneous place that is in need of benevolent outsiders, and celebrities, to save destitute children. Most importantly, current celebrities do not challenge the power structures that perpetuate poverty, argued Easterly in late 2010.

“A more serious analysis might note the irony of using Hollywood women as sex objects and seeing African women as the passive recipients of aid chivalry, when one of the objectives of aid is gender equality,” posed Easterly in the Huffington Post.

Mia Farrow in the Central African Republic

credit=”Pierre Holtz” Mia Farrow in the Central African Republic

Others pointed to the de-politicization of conflicts by celebrities. George Clooney, for example, was quoted as saying that the issue was not a political one, but a matter of right and wrong. He came under a flurry of criticism when he announced the launch of the Satellite Sentinel Project, an effort to document the atrocities committed in Sudan and the movement of the military. Critics questioned the utility of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a satellite to document crimes given the fact that their cameras are not good enough to provide indisputable evidence.

Clooney shot back at his critics telling the Globe and Mail, “If your cynicism means you stand on the sidelines and throw stones, I’m fine, I can take it. I could give a damn what you think. We’re trying to save some lives. If you’re cynical enough not to understand that, then get off your ass and do something.”

Hulariras and Tzifakis find that celebrities had an overall positive impact. Princess Diana played a role in accelerating the Ottawa Treaty that banned the use of landmines. Farrow’s rabid campaign against China did in fact contribute to some shift in the way the country worked with Sudan.

“Although the argument that journalistic accounts tend to overestimate their role has some validity, the impact of individuals should not be taken a priori as negligible,” they write.

Even in the case of the satellites, Clooney did not act alone in his travels and work in Sudan. Hulariras and Tzifakis show that both Clooney and Farrow entered the Darfur campaign after it was already underway. They worked with the existing networks and campaigns to build awareness about the genocide. Rather than determine the discussion and policy prescriptions on Darfur, Clooney and Farrow were recruited to the campaign so that the campaign could reach more Americans and political leaders.

“In this respect, to the extent that the two celebrities did not exercise any authority over Darfur’s entry into the transnational advocacy agenda and they did not affect its framing, they should not be considered fully fledged gatekeepers of this issue’s emergence,” write the authors.

These few examples provide a glimpse into how celebrities can influence rights campaigns. That may not be as relevant to other efforts like charity:water using Jennifer Connelly for its clean water work or Justin Bieber advocating for education NGO Pencils of Promise. Celebrities that work with NGOs are acting as amplification tools, but are seeking to drive donations rather than political action.

What is for certain is that celebrities will still be used by humanitarian organizations for advocacy and fundraising.


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]