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'Celebvocates': Mere Noise Versus Impact

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Celebrities and the causes they champion seem to go together these days like burger and fries. It is becoming the norm: Make a name, acquire a cause.

And we shouldn't knock that. It is good that the world's famous, rich and often beautiful people are also trying to do some good. I must admit, however, that it is difficult to avoid some skepticism. As an African, for instance, I am not always comfortable with the number of celebrities who have 'adopted' and claim to speak for my continent. Sometimes, watching one of them speak about Africa as though they owned it, my reaction jumps from mild irritation to rage.  In fact, the article that prompted this blog post (a piece in the winter edition of  FTWealth Magazine titled 'With or without you') contains some acerbic views regarding 'celebvocates' and what they get up to. Apparently, the journalist Brendan O'Neill calls it 'celebrity colonialism". And the writer Paul Theroux supposedly railed in the New York Times that:

"The impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help - not to mention celebrities and charity concerts - is a destructive and misleading conceit."

I agree.

What is not in doubt is that celebrities do bring attention to a cause. Leaders of global advocacy campaigns interviewed by the Financial Times testify that celebrities create vast amounts of energy around an issue, if you use the right ones for the issue in question. The noise level they can create would otherwise cost you a fortune in publicity and advertising spending.

The problem is: noise is not the same thing as impact. Many issues are difficult, and require difficult reforms in many countries. An obvious example is climate change; another is high level corruption. Megawatt celebrities, even supernovas, can shine light on the issue, but given the obduracy of powerful vested interests and the blocking coalitions that these interests  can deploy in many countries, genuine impact remains only a hope, a dream. Eventually, the 'celebvocates' get frustrated and move on.

The Financial Times piece singles out the rock star, Bono, for praise. He is said to be a formidable political strategist and lobbyist.  Bob Geldof is also said to be a smooth-talker around the powerful.  The picture that emerges is of two exceptional celebrities who bring attention to the causes they champion all right, but also invade the corridors of power to charm the powerful and push for change. Not only that, they set up organizations, raise tons of money, and stay with the issue for the long haul. In other words, they are deploying  the Inside-Outside Game without which pro-poor social and political change is a mirage.

The difficulty of course is that very few celebrities have those skills...or the stamina.

 

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Photo Credit: World Economic Forum (on Flickr)

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on
Stephen Colbert testified before a House subcommittee on immigration. Woody Harrelson and Bill Maher supports marijuana legalization. Ron Artest is a mental health advocate. It's unlikely that all these celebrities are qualified experts in whatever cause they choose to support. We shouldn't look at celebrity advocates with skepticism and judgment on their true intentions because no one but themselves can ever be sure. What is certain is that celebrities bring noise, and while noise is not the same as impact, noise is awareness which can lead to more.

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