06 September 2013

What Celebrities Accomplish for Humanitarian Campaigns

Mia Farrow in the CAR. Credit: Pierre Holz
Celebrities are often used as eye candy for charity campaigns and giant advocacy efforts.

Remarks from actress Angelina Jolie are released alongside comments from the UN on the number of Syrian refugees surpassing the 2 million mark this week. Mia Farrow vocally campaigned against China in the run up to the 2008 Olympics in response to their support of the brutal regime in Sudan.

George Clooney also made Sudan his point of focus, Ben Affleck has the DR Congo, Princess Diana campaigned to end landmines and Bono wants to end extreme poverty.

Using celebrities does have an impact, but not how you may have expected.

They do have a small impact on humanitarian events, but generally serve as amplification tools for existing organizations and campaigns. In some way, the Hollywood set use their celebrity to reach audience by putting their ability to represent an idea created by someone else to the public. It is a lot like acting in a film.

Researchers Asteris Huliaras and Nikolaos Tzifakis published a pair of papers (both gated) that look at celebrity impact on international relations and specifically at how Clooney and Farrowplayed a part in the Save Darfur effort. Personal experiences and the ability to gain access to higher levels in the political latter make it easier for celebrities to remain local in their reach while traveling to and connecting with international issues.

The role of celebrity is oft debated in humanitarian circles. NYU Economist Bill Easterly is one of the more vocal critics of using celebrities in support of aid and humanitarian efforts. He says that they amplify the simplistic idea of the basket case that is Africa. A homogeneous place that is in need of benevolent outsiders, and celebrities, to save destitute children. Most importantly, current celebrities do not challenge the power structures that perpetuate poverty, argued Easterly in late 2010.