31 August 2012

Editing Carr: "Celebrity Activism and the FWD Campaign: What you endorse matters"

Last night, I teased Ed Carr that he writes great posts but they are too long. I said I would cut down his 858 word post on the FWD campaign and celebrity advocates. Here is my 559 word edit. I think it loses some of Ed's voice, but gets to the thrust of his argument and is in some ways more assertive. Comment away on the comparison and the ideas presented.

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 and funds for relief. The use of celebrity in the FWD campaign illuminated just how thin celebrity authority can be and still produce an “acceptable” message.

Television chef and food critic, Anthony Bourdain, lent his expertise saying, “chefs understand . . . not only how important it is to eat, but how awful it is when you can’t.” It is unclear how chefs might have any greater understanding of how awful it is to be food insecure than any other person. Furthermore, 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.

Food is very important to Bourdain, but 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. 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. Eating exotic food around the world does not make him a food security expert.
This is not to question Bourdain’s sincerity in his concern for the situation in the Horn of Africa. Instead, I am highlighting 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. It 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).

Celebrities aren’t really experts. We already knew that. This matters 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.

Instead, in an effort to muster support for much needed relief efforts, FWD and its celebrity spokespeople reduced the Horn of Africa to a site that has ill health and absence of well-being at its essence. In FWD PSAs, a recurrent theme was “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 sanitation 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 with no hope for long-term resolution.

Celebrity activism does matter – like any tool, it can be used for good or problematic ends. 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.