Entries tagged with “celebrity activism”.

I’ve raised the issue of celebrity humanitarianism several times on this blog (here, here, and here). It is a fraught territory that generally raises strong feelings among the development community. Done wrong, it can be disastrous. Done well…well, honestly, there is a debate about whether or not it can be done well.

I had the opportunity to move beyond the blog and spend some time in academic thought on this topic – birthed from Twitter, no less! When some colleagues approached me about writing a chapter about Bono and celebrity humanitarianism for a book they were putting together, I really wanted to take up the offer but lacked the time necessary to really write a good chapter. So I put out a call for co-authors on Twitter, and Ami Shah took me up on it. She roped a colleague, historian Bruce Hall, into the project, which proved to be a boon to us. The product, “Bono, Band Aid, and Before: Celebrity Humanitarianism, Music and the Objects of its Actionwas a really interesting chapter (I learned things from my co-authors in writing it) on the history of celebrity humanitarianism, and how the “new” celebrity wonkery of Bono and others is, in fact, nothing new at all.

The chapter will appear in 2014 in the book Soundscapes of Wellbeing in Popular Music. (Andrews, Gavin J., Paul Kingsbury, and Robin A. Kearns, eds. Burlington, VT: Ashgate). I have posted a preprint version of our chapter on my preprints page (link here). If you are into this topic, I think you will find it an interesting read…

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.

I’ve had a post or two referencing the role of celebrity in development recently, triggered by Bill Easterly’s recent Washington Post op-ed.  I was surprised to see Easterly take such heat for pointing out that celebrity engagement with development can be problematic – most of the folks I know largely agree with the op-ed.  My only intervention was to suggest that Easterly (and others who raise issues with celebrity and development) focus more on the people who feed the celebs their ideas and talking points.  Sometimes really well-meaning people can be led astray by one loud voice . . .

Having watched/been part of this conversation for a few days, though, I see the need for an intervention.  On his twitter feed, Bill Easterly has promoted a commenter who felt s/he had to remove a post critical of Bono because “Bono gives big money to my organization, and they thought that pissing off Bono could cause another Sunday Bloody Sunday.”  At first glance, this paints Bono as terribly thin-skinned, and suggests that he is unwilling to take on criticism of his efforts.  Perhaps this is true, but I see little evidence for it here – basically, you have an overly-cautious organization afraid of pissing off a celebrity, but no suggestion that Bono demanded its removal.

More telling, though, is the URL the “censored” poster left at the end of their comment – http://bonowithafricans.wordpress.com/ Oh look, let’s take a bunch of random pictures of Bono in Africa, divorce them from all context, and then stick snarky comments after them.  How clever!  And juvenile, boring, etc.  All this does is suggest to me that the commenter has a larger issue with Bono, and has used Easterly’s blog as a platform to promote them.

I pride myself on taking my work very seriously, without taking myself very seriously.  I have my foibles (too numerous to list here), and I am well aware that at least some of my grad students can do a credible impression of me (which I actually take as something of a warped complement) – but I find this sort of thing funny.  Hell, we can play the snark game with any number of pictures of me:

“Community meetings would be easier without the community”

“This garland is way outside of my color wheel”

“They told me there would be bourbon.  This . . . is not bourbon”

See, now wasn’t that fun?

The point here is that criticism really needs to be constructive, and anchored in something.  I’ve been known to lose my temper – for example at the end of the post here – but even my rants are anchored in solid analysis.  My extended frustration with Sachs is well-documented, even in the peer-reviewed literature.  I have substantive issues with his theories, and how they lead to inappropriate interventions.  I sat through what I can best describe as a horribly embarrassing lecture by Sachs at the 2008 Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Boston, where he evoked a total lack of awareness of geography, the fact anyone else in the world addresses development issues, and revived the long-buried corpse of environmental determinism – all around me there were hundreds of geographers staring at him in open-mouthed shock.  The man is a disaster for development.  However, I can train a monkey to rip something down – as I tell my students, if you want to impress me, put it back together in an interesting way.  In my writing on the Millennium Village Project I have offered alternatives and suggestions.  I do the same in my forthcoming book.  Snark does nothing constructive, and makes it hard for the criticized to see through the personal attack to the useful ideas that might lead to more productive engagement.

Focus on substance, and being constructive, people.  To modify the old adage about teaching . . . Those who can’t, snark.

Bill Easterly is one of the better public intellectuals in the area of development – I enjoy his writing, and I think that his work since leaving the World Bank has become more and more valuable as it takes on an ever-more critical edge.  I take him to task for some of his earlier work in my book, and I think that he does not quite question the workings of globalization and development to the extent necessary to really start to get at what is happening in the world, but by and large I think he is a tremendously valuable asset for the development community.

My belief in his value just went up tenfold, however, with his op-ed comparing the celebrity activism of Lennon to that of Bono.  While I take his points about Lennon’s activism, I suspect that Easterly overstates the case for Lennon’s importance as an activist a bit – it is hard to change the system from completely outside, as there is often no way to engage with people constructively – all you get is parallel conversations.  But Easterly’s criticism of Bono is dead on:

While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise – doing things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants or solar-powered drip irrigation.

Bono becomes a problem not through any fault of his own, really, but because he becomes a mouthpiece for people like Jeff Sachs (I have plenty to say about him, but look here, here and in the peer-reviewed literature here) who really seem unable to think about power relations, history and political economy when considering development.  Asserting that poverty is the result of a lack of development asserts a problem and a solution all at once, without ever really addressing a cause.  Further, as I tell my students, there is no such thing as a purely technical, apolitical development intervention – even putting in a well will have variable impacts across a community, creating winners and losers.  The technical is not the hard part in development – if it was, we’d have accomplished a hell of a lot more than we have up to this point.

I also must admit that I really appreciated Easterly turning his guns on the other celebrity activists:

Bono is not the only well-intentioned celebrity wonk of our age – the impulse is ubiquitous. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (seriously) in addition to serving as a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Ben Affleck has become an expert on the war in Congo. George Clooney has Sudan covered, while Leonardo DiCaprio hobnobs with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at a summit to protect tigers; both actors have written opinion essays on those subjects in these pages, further solidifying their expert bona fides.

But why should we pay attention to Bono’s or Jolie’s expertise on Africa, any more than we would ask them for guidance on the proper monetary policy for the Federal Reserve?

Why indeed?  I sure as hell don’t plan to lecture Clooney or DiCaprio on acting.  Affleck, well . . .

But I must take issue with Easterly a tiny bit here – yes, Bono is the frontman, but shouldn’t our frustration be directed at those who fill his and others’ heads with the belief that we can fix it all, with just a little more money (I’m looking at you, Dr. Sachs)?  I have no doubt that Bono, Clooney and all the rest have the best of intentions, and work hard to inform themselves rather than run around blind, but in the end they are manipulated by people with greater experience and what appears to be greater expertise to further agendas that these celebrities do not understand – Bono is backing Sachs’ push for more aid (which is in conflict with Easterly’s and others’ view that we need to focus on institutions, political systems and corruption).  Clooney is supporting a group that has one idea of how to address issues in Sudan, but may not have the best or the only ideas because they tend to deal in moral absolutes (like supporting an ICC warrant for Kony, which derailed peace talks in Northern Uganda/Southern Sudan/Congo/CAR).  We need to make sure we dig past the celebs to those who feed them these ideas, and address the problem at it source . . .