An Ode to Celebrity Humanitarianism

Humanitarianism: The act of providing assistance to “distant others”, with whom one has no personal connections (Vokes) 

Celebrity:  a famous or celebrated person (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

 

Welcome back to the Digital Humanitarian – one more time!

I have the honor to conclude this project with one last post for this spring. Perhaps this isn’t the end of our blog for good, time will tell. But now, let’s get to business.

 

While my fellow bloggers have focused on more technical aspects like data collection, digital identity and literally new technologies themselves, my focus has largely been on the more humanly side of using ICT for Aid Work and Development. Who are the people behind using ICT4D and ICT4AidWork? 

 

Looking back on my time in the Communication for Development master’s program so far, I notice something interesting. More often than not, I have found myself criticizing the critique. Maybe to some that might seem like I’m naïve or a supporter of the status quo, when I sometimes get even annoyed by the critiques towards for example aid organizations. I fully understand the need to criticize in order to develop and do better, and I do see a lot of good in it as well, but sometimes the literature of this field of study is just so, very full of it. Therefore when I criticize the critiques, I would argue that instead of being naïve, I’m simply putting forward different perspectives. Or that is at least what I hope to do, let’s find out if I manage to convince you. 🙂

 

Celebrities & humanitarianism

 

One topic that often gets my blood if not boiling, at least flowing, is one briefly discussed already earlier in this blog; celebrity humanitarianism. That said post was also one to receive a lot of attention and discussion on my personal social media profiles and therefore I figured that it would be interesting to elaborate on that a bit further. 

 

As one of the core questions in ComDev is understanding whether someone or something is ‘looking good’ or actually ‘doing good’, it’s no surprise that celebrities are very easily put under the magnifying glass when it comes to their efforts in aid work and humanitarianism. Everyone seems to have something to say about them too. Many of the headlines regarding celebrity humanitarianism follow along the lines of these from Carolina Are:

 

“The Problems with Celebrity Humanitarians” and “Doing good or doing nothing? Celebrity, media and philanthropy in China” by Hassid & Jeffreys. Lists are also being written about all things wrong like “Do gooder done bad: top five celebrity blunders” (the Guardian). 

 

Of course, they are (mostly) based on facts, extensive research, or even personal experiences from the field working with celebrities. I am in no way trying to discredit all the important work that has been written about celebrity humanitarianism, although I am also referring to a wider negative discourse around the topic here than only ‘trustworthy’ journal articles.

 

In Susan Hopkins’s article about female UN Goodwill Ambassadors, she seems very upset about the advocacy work of Emma Watson, Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie being mentioned in cover articles written about them in big women’s magazines such as Vogue. This article is also not the only place where she has brought up these ideas. One of Jolie’s interviews Hopkins comments on by saying that despite a disclaimer about Jolie preparing thoroughly for her work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and is briefed by experts; 

 

“there is little discussion of the economic and political context that drives people in the Global South to migrate in the first place”. 

 

She continues with saying that: 

 

“Despite her good intentions, the focus of the PR-ised story is clearly the celebrity herself, as a corporate brand, for corporate advertisers, while the people she purports to save are pushed outside the frame”.

 

And..:

 

“They don’t have much to say about (…) an inherently unequal, competitive & unjust system-perhaps because their privileged Western, white, middle class backgrounds have not adequately prepared them for the realties of intersectional race & class based oppression” 

 

And no, I can’t really disagree with these observations, BUT… Vogue is a fashion magazine, with corporate advertisers and regular readers consuming it for entertainment and fashion inspiration. So yes, Angelina Jolie’s brand quite surely benefits from an article like that, but at the same time it is creating brand awareness for UNHCR as well and to some extent must be benefitting the organization’s work. Without Jolie’s involvement there would most likely not be a mention of humanitarian work at all. These celebrities are also not scholars and most definitely not the best prepared to face the aforementioned struggles, so yes, they’re not perfect. But I will discuss the ‘ideal’ Goodwill Ambassador in a moment.

 

To Emma Watson’s pictures accompanying an article that features her work for/with UN Women, Hopkins’s comment is:

 

“As previously discussed in relation to other UN global gender equality ambassadors, it would be difficult to imagine male celebrity diplomats or female politicians authorising such a stereotypically feminine and sexualised ‘cover girl’ image. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible Cleo’s youthful consumers read such sexualised celebrity iconography as pleasurable, inspiring or even empowering.”

 

Yes, Susan Hopkins. Celebrity iconography – even sexualised ones, can most definitely be empowering and these sorts of dismissive tones towards young women and girls from a highly educated, older, ‘high horse’ will certainly not do much good for the advancement of this – supposedly – feminist approach being pushed here

The magazine cover that could not possibly empower young women.

Pardon my frustration, I don’t enjoy other women (or anyone for that matter) telling women what they are allowed to be empowered by. But now, we shall continue. 

 

Why not..?

My question then is the following; if we, global Northerners and Westerners are doing our best to ‘capitalize in the global modern market place’, and the movie stars, musicians and supermodels are doing it for commercial purposes, why on earth shouldn’t it be allowed to extend those capitalization efforts on the same system for doing good as well? There are definitely flaws and the issues these celebrity humanitarians are fighting for could receive more coverage without a doubt. Women’s magazines are also a very fertile ground for debates about female representation and Western beauty standards, absolutely. 

 

But we in the academia need to also recognize that Vogue is not a journal of critical feminist studies, and unfortunately its contents don’t necessarily always align with such ideals. Are Susan Hopkins and other scholars criticizing ‘celebrity humanitarianism’ really demanding that celebrities and the organizations collaborating with them need to be perfect in order to be allowed to do what they do? I hope not, but limiting the focus of so many scholarly and non-scholarly works to merely criticizing and pointing out the flaws, truly suggests so. And like I mentioned, Hopkins’s dismissive language about the readers of Cleo, don’t really advance the feminist agenda either.

 

There is however one aspect even in the article by Susan Hopkins that I can easily connect to and see value expanding upon. 

 

Who’s the agent?

 

A very valid point that is often brought up in these critiques of celebrity humanitarianism is that it can often be connected to ‘White Saviorism’. 

 

Regina A. D. Baiden argues in her master’s thesis ‘The Celebrity Burden: Celebrity Campaigns in the Pursuit of Humanitarianism’, that celebrity humanitarianism often leads to displacement of agency. She argues that 

 

“On one end is the displacement of agency from the “sufferers” onto the celebrity and, on the other hand is the displacement of visibility away from local efforts onto the western celebrity.”

 

The main threats in this kind of displacement of agency are that the celebrities firstly get to decide which causes should receive the attention. Secondly they take away the focus from the recipients of aid but also from successful local initiatives. Thirdly an argument is made that celebrities would end up with the sole responsibility of finding solutions and local authorities for example would be let off the hook. I definitely agree with the author about the importance of considering – and trying to avoid these pitfalls. 

 

And as much as white saviorism is often connected to celebrity humanitarianism, displacement of agency is often very much connected to white saviorism. Perhaps one could sometimes even use these terms interchangeable. 

 

‘Right’ kind of humanitarianism

 

How to do celebrity humanitarianism?

 

There is no doubt that people close to or having lived through a situation; conflict, poverty, war, human trafficking, female genital mutilation etc. are in a way the best spokespersons for the needs of those people. Therefore it is absolutely crucial to not take away agency from them, or to place a celebrity or anyone else ‘irrelevant’ in the center of attention when doing aid work.

 

Ideally, the celebrity humanitarians would bring their fame and fortune – and that way masses of people and donations, into the picture but with continuous training and education from experts on the topic that they are advocating for. These experts should and could be for example a combination of researchers, local authorities and community leaders, and professional representatives of humanitarian organizations, ‘career humanitarians’. This way, it could be best assured that the benefits of celebrity humanitarianism materialize in a truly beneficial way and that the available assets are efficiently used where they are needed the most. 

 

I argue that white saviorism and displacement of agency are not inherent features of celebrities doing humanitarian work. I argue that a wider public audience hearing even bits of Angelina Jolie’s (long lasting and important) humanitarian efforts is not a negative thing. Even if the work she has done with UNHCR wouldn’t be the main point of an article written about her, it is still better than what would most likely be nothing. 

 

It is extremely important to aim for sustainable, long lasting solutions for local communities and for helping communities help themselves instead of trapping them in an eternal need of foreign aid. I can only hope that the organizations that work for important causes (who gets to decide that anyway?) and conduct their work in an efficient and positive way, happen to get the big names. And even more desirably the big names with a true will to learn and commit.

 

It’s also important to make sure that the messages that might get chewed up and stripped down to meet the character count on Twitter don’t turn against themselves and end up doing harm instead of good. And what should be a no brainer; celebrity humanitarian – if you’re reading this: don’t be a jerk on the field. It’s okay to write articles questioning ‘Who really benefits from celebrity activism?’ and ‘Has anyone worked out if celebrities are worth the effort?’, but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t need to ask these questions, at least in this sense.

 

In a wider sense, I also hope for initiatives like Africa for Norway’s Rusty Radiator award to gain wider knowledge, deepen the conversations, and educate the public in interesting ways about which celebrities and aid organizations are doing a good job even if you scratch the surface a bit. 

 

What do I want?

 

So to conclude this longer and at points slightly emotional final post, what was I really going after?  


My main point that I wanted to make was the following; please let’s expand the narrative on humanitarian aid and ‘celebrity humanitarianism’. There sure is a lot to critique on, and decolonizing development and aid work is absolutely crucial. But more often than not, I see anything from exhaustive essays to lists so simplified that they’re bare to the bone, that make extremely little or no remark on what could be done instead or which parts should be done better. Instead of concluding massive amounts of literature having just pointed out flaws, could the criticizers of ‘celebrity humanitarianism’ open their minds to even consider the possibilities that it can bring along. 

 

I hope we can all agree that the times of sending a random, uneducated (in the specific topic at least), very privileged, white, Western superstar to pose holding unnamed children in Africa (the victimized ‘other’) should be behind us, but also that that is not the essence of ‘celebrity humanitarianism’ anymore or at least it doesn’t have to be. And if it’s impossible for someone to consider the possibilities of celebrity humanitarianism out of sheer optimism, I would suggest to think about it this way: celebrity humanitarianism is most likely not going anywhere anytime soon, so how can we make it better and more efficient if it’s a ‘necessary evil’. 

What did we learn?

I hope that this spring, with all of its weirdness and challenges brought along, managed to also inspire you. While reading our blog, I wish you have learnt something. Perhaps you found this blog as a newbie in the fields of ComDev and ICT4D and we got to introduce you to a whole new world, or maybe you’re already an expert, in which case I hope we managed to tickle your brain with new perspectives and to draw your attention to something that you might not have thought about before. Either way, I truly hope (- and I’m sure I can speak for the whole team behind the Digital Humanitarian), that you found some enjoyment in reading our posts.

 

I surely did enjoy this – and learnt quite a bit! This process posed some challenges to the Digital Humanitarian team with having to create a consistent concept for 5 different authors under the same blog, all the while trying to cover as wide of a variety of aspects as possible. But I think we all found our places. As I found my place in a very human-centered approach, I hope I managed to also link it to the technical aspects clearly enough. Personally, I truly have liked the blogging experience in a sense that it provided a chance to discuss the topics of our studies in a more relaxed setting. I think that especially with this final post I manage to do my part in diversifying the discussion as Tobias Denskus (2019a) hopes to happen. Although I’m not sure my posts necessarily diversify the discussion with a significantly decolonial take. What has made it even more appealing to me is definitely the chance to share my thoughts with a wider audience and have very eye-opening discussions about my texts for example on Facebook. Perhaps that’s one reason I speak so strongly for celebrity humanitarianism – that I secretly enjoy the attention as well. 😀 

 

All jokes aside though, I think this has been a very enriching and educational experience and I believe it will be extremely valuable in my future professionally. Blogging for the Digital Humanitarian has actually awakened some dreams about developing a new blog project in the future… And to avoid it being all about me and my opinions, I would like to find ways to share the platform with development initiatives on the grassroots level globally. On that note, I will keep developing this little dream of mine and say thank you for now!

 

Ps. You are still more than welcome to share your thoughts and takes in the comments below!

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References:

 

Are, Caroline, ‘The Problem with Celebrity Humanitarians’, Humanitarian News Research Network. Available online: https://blogs.city.ac.uk/humnews/2018/07/10/the-problem-with-celebrity-humanitarians/ 

 

Baiden, Regina A.D. (2013) ‘The Celebrity Burden: Celebrity Campaigns in the Pursuit of Humanitarianism’, Master’s Thesis, Michigan Technological University.

 

BBC News, (2019), ‘Stacey Dooley hits back at MP Lammy’s Comic Relief ‘white saviour’ criticism’, bbc.com, 28th February. Available online: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-47400300 

 

Cole, Georgia, Radley, Ben and Falisse, Jean-Benoit (2015), ‘Who really benefits from celebrity activism?’, the Guardian, 10th July. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/10/celebrity-activism-africa-live-aid 

 

Denskus, Tobias (2019a), ‘Blogging and curating content as strategies to diversify discussion and communicate development differently’, Aidnography, 17th December. Available online: http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2019/12/blogging-curating-globaldev-content-diversify-communicate-development-differently.html 

 

Denskus, Tobias (2019b), ‘White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps’, Aidnography, 5th March. Available online:   http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2019/03/white-saviour-dooley-lammy-comic-relief-communication-rituals.html 

 

Hassid, Jonathan & Jeffreys, Elaine (2015) ’Doing good or doing nothing? Celebrity, media and philanthropy in China’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 36, iss. 1. Pp. 75-93.

 

Hopkins, Susan 2017, ‘UN celebrity ‘It’ girls as public relations-ised humanitarianism’, International Communication Gazette, vol. 80, no. 3, pp. 273-292.

https://journals-sagepub-com.ep.fjernadgang.kb.dk/doi/full/10.1177/1748048517727223#

 

Leach, Anna (2014) ‘Do gooder done bad: top five celebrity blunders’, the Guardian, 31st Jan. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/jan/31/do-gooder-done-bad-top-five-celebrity-blunders 

 

Radi-Aid’s checklist for communicating corporate social responsibility initiatives

https://www.radiaid.com/

 

Secret Aid Worker: (2015) ‘Has anyone worked out if celebrities are worth the effort?’, the Guardian, 30th June. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/jun/30/secret-aid-worker-celebrities-angelina-jolie 

 

Vokes, Richard (2017) Media and Development, Routledge. 

 

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