Celebrity Activism: Are Good Intentions Good Enough?

“We’ll win if we work together as one, the people. The power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power” – Bono, 2013 TED Talk

“Problems should not be glamourized by the association of celebrities” – Dambisa Moyo

Bob Geldof and Bono campaigning against poverty. Source.
Bob Geldof and Bono campaigning against poverty. Source.

Bono is first and foremost, a singer. However recently he’s become the face of combatting poverty in Africa, and taken on the role as an activist, economist, politician, humanitarian and framed as an angel to save all of the ‘poor Africans.’ Throughout the 80’s, he worked with Bob Geldof on the Live Aid concerts and has heavily campaigned to fight poverty in Africa, especially Ethiopia. In 2005 he went on to campaign for the Make Poverty History Movement which was more focused on social justice rather than charity. And then in 2014, he is featured on the single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ to fight the ebola outbreak in West Africa, raising millions of pounds.

Bono brings his good intentions to Africa. Source
Bono brings his good intentions to Africa. Source

There is an issue here. Celebrities like Bono who become activists for large-scale social and humanitarian issues are not experts on poverty, inequality and sustainable development. Yet he has met with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Bill Gates and various other politicians and powerful actors to generate policy change and create global awareness (Why Poverty, 2012). He has inadvertently become the face of anti poverty. Bono already has millions of people who look up to them, respect them, hate him or talk about him across the globe and he’s using a unique platform to spread his message.

Celebrities are not experts and can often oversimplify a very complex issue such as poverty. The infamous Make Poverty History video above features many different celebrities. Dambisa Moyo is a Ghanese economist and activist who is extremely ‘anti-Bono’ due to his ignorance of the complexity of poverty and lack of results. In a recent televised debate, Moyo states that the West needs to stop being sympathetic and start being empathetic and realizing that Africans are doing a lot of grassroots work to create change (Black Wall Street, 2015). Another issue is the media portrayal of Africa and their people as the victims, and people like Bono and Bob Geldof as the white saviour (Davis, 2010), which contributes to a sympathetic view of ‘poor Africa.’ Moyo says that, ‘Africa’s debt problems should not be glamourized by the association of celebrities who’s actions are more often than not self-perpetrating,’ (Fitzpatrick, 2011) and that is where we find the problem with celebrity activism.

The 2014 release of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ sparked controversy and further encourages this ‘poor Africa’ perception. It plays on one of the main parts of Moyo’s book, where she highlights how ‘the West is patronizing Africans’ (Easterly, 2009). The video is solely focused on the singers and celebrities that resonates with the Make Poverty History video of ‘spot the celebrity.’ Sure, it starts with some graphic images, and sure, they raised a lot of money… but is that enough?

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Africa re-conquered by Hollywood. Source

Celebrities are experts at grabbing people’s attention and creating emotional responses in people. The images and videos they broadcast are heart wrenching, because they’re designed that way. Nash explains that people need to see themselves as part of the ‘global political community’ (Nash, 2008). No one’s going to sign a petition, donate money or be a part of a protest unless they’ve felt personally motivated to do so, and celebrities can make this happen. Many argue that ‘at least celebrities are doing something with their power,’ but is it really justified if the damage they are creating is greater than their ‘good acts.’ Are good intentions, good enough?

So how do we ensure that the work celebrities are doing is progressive and beneficial for those affected by the issue they represent? Alex Dewaal says that there are ‘fundamental pillars of activism which should always be followed, most of all, the act of responding to and collaborating with local people, rather than imposing outside agendas’ (Dewaal, 2013). Celebrities should be held accountable and responsible for their actions. They shouldn’t engage in humanitarian activism unless they’re willing to follow through and commit to the cause they represent.

References

Black Wall Street, 2015, ‘Debate: Foreign Aid does more harm than good’, Black Wall Street, 13 March, 45:54 – 47:46, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWlLE7IohXo

Cole, G. Radley, B. Falisse, J.B 2015, ‘Who really benefits from celebrity activism?’, The Guardian, 10 July, http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/10/celebrity-activism-africa-live-aid 

Davis, H 2010, ‘Feeding the world a line?: Celebrity activism and ethical consumer practices from Live Aid to Product Red’, Nordic Journal of English Studies, Miami University, Vol 9.3, pp 111-115

Dewall, A 2013, ‘Reclaiming Activism’, World Peace Foundation, 30 April, https://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2013/04/30/reclaiming-activism/

Fitzpatrick, S 2011, ‘The Moyo-Bono Divide: What are the Opposing Sides?’, Hubpages, 14 February, http://siouxtrick.hubpages.com/hub/The-Moyo-Bono-Divide

Nash, K 2008, ‘Global citizenship as showbusiness: the cultural politics of Make Poverty History’, Media Culture Society, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 167-181

Why Poverty, 2012, ‘Give Us The Money’, Why Poverty, 10 December, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgGP3zV8kdU

Further Information

Bono’s 2013 TED Talk

Band Aid 30’s cover of Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Why Poverty’s documentary exploring the efforts of Bono and Bob Geldof along with their accomplishments and criticism

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