Thu 30 Aug 2012
Since we’re on the topic of messaging, here’s something I’ve wanted to post on for a while. In response to the Horn of Africa famine, USAID and several partner organizations stood up a campaign called FWD (Famine, War, and Drought) to raise awareness of the situation in the Horn, and to raise funds for relief. There were all kinds of issues with this campaign, but for me the biggest was how the use of celebrity in the FWD campaign illuminated just how thin celebrity authority can be and still produce an “acceptable” message.
For example, the campaign drew upon Anthony Bourdain, television chef and food critic. His expertise, when speaking about famine, comes from the fact that he is a (famous) chef, because “chefs understand . . . not only how important it is to eat, but how awful it is when you can’t.” (an actual quote from one of the Bourdain film clips). This is an odd construction of expertise, when one considers it carefully. First, it is unclear how chefs might have any greater understanding of how awful it is to be food insecure than any other person. Second, this presentation hides the fact that the importance of food to Bourdain is rather different than its importance to a Somali forced to flee across the Kenyan border to find food – Bourdain is a chef with a TV show who eats a hell of a lot of good/exotic food and is very well paid to do it. Food is very important to him. But probably not in the same way as a mother in Somalia trying to feed her child dirt or dry grass, anything to keep the child from dying. Finally, because Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” takes him to various exotic locations around the world, there is something of a presumption that he knows about the challenges that face people in that part of the world. However, Bourdain has never visited an area suffering from severe food shortage on the show, nor has he extensively interacted with someone who is acutely food insecure to experience their diet and context.
[Aside: I think Bourdain would be fantastic at critiquing food aid…not the system, but the actual food that is delivered – seriously, someone needs to make that happen. He would probably have some interesting ideas, actually.]
This is not to question Bourdain’s sincerity in his concern for the situation in the Horn of Africa. Instead, I am trying to highlight that his selection to play this role, and his legitimacy to the viewer when he speaks about famine, does not come from any sort of expertise in addressing famine, war or drought, but from a perception that he knows something about how people eat in many parts of the world. That is akin to claiming to be an agricultural expert because you’ve stood on dozens of farms in the developing world (something I’ve actually heard someone say). You are not an agricultural expert, you are an agricultural tourist. Bourdain’s expertise in food insecurity falls below the level of tourism.
Fine – the celebrity experts aren’t really experts. We all knew that before I burned 500 words at the front end of this post. But this matters a hell of a lot, especially when you consider the solutions people like Bourdain were supporting under FWD. The interventions identified by the FWD website were narrowly technical means of addressing acute need, and did not in any way address the root causes of the crisis that brought about these needs, including climate change, rising global food commodity prices, and long-term political instability. Instead, in an effort to muster support for (much needed) relief efforts, FWD and its celebrity spokespeople once again reduced Africa to a site that has ill health and absence of well-being at its essence and therefore beyond addressing in a fundamental way. In FWD PSAs, a recurrent theme was the phrase “We are the relief,” an echo of Magubane’s critique of celebrity activism’s representations of Africa as, “while not populated by spear-chucking savages . . . completely bereft of doctors, politicians, musicians, or actors.” One only need look to the website’s claim that “US Assistance will continue funding the urgently needed food, health, shelter, water and santitation assistance to those who desperately need help” (website’s emphasis) to understand that there is no clear end to this need under the narrative presented by FWD. Those affected by the crisis become helpless objects of pity, a problem with a technical solution for the immediate crisis, but no hope for long-term resolution.
Celebrity activism does matter – like any tool, it can be used for good or problematic ends. But when the celebrity is appointed an expert, their opinions start to shape public opinion and longer-range funding and outcomes. If they don’t know what they are talking about, they can be sucked into problematic narratives that perpetuate the problems that the celebrities hoped to address through their participation. Celebrities, learn your material, consult the experts, then choose your causes carefully – you can do some good, but only if you take an active role in ensuring that is what your participation is bringing about.