Celebrity humanitarians

Celebrity humanitarianism has been around for barely a generation. A celebrity playing a humanitarian role acts as a bridge between a (Western) audience and a faraway tragedy, a focus for empathy, an emotional interpreter. While some columnists who write about foreign atrocities freight every sentence with bombast and outrage, a talented actor tells the story with just sufficient cues for the audience to supply the sadness and anger. That’s a far more potent performance.

Celebrities such as Mia Farrow, George Clooney, and Don Cheadle (who played the lead in the movie Hotel Rwanda) converged on the Darfur issue.

In a promotional video for the (RED) campaign, which purports to battle HIV/AIDS through commerce, Bono and Oprah Winfrey stroll down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, inspecting (RED) products—sunglasses, iPods, cellphones—and eagerly buying them up. Gap T-shirts printed with words such as “INSPI(RED)” are prominent among them. A percentage of each purchase price goes to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The message is not subtle—buy consumer brands and save Africans from dying of AIDS.

Launched in March 2006, a year later (RED) had generated just $18 million for the Global Fund. Subsequent (RED) fact sheets say that (RED) “partners and events” have generated more than $100 million. But the product line had expanded to just thirteen items and its “make history” timeline, as of August 2008, lists no events subsequent to January 2008.

(RED) has been on the receiving side of much criticism, some of it both witty and pointed. For example, the Web site www.buylesscrap.org has a banner: “Shopping is not a solution: Buy (Less). Give More.” It explains how to contribute directly to the Global Fund without buying a pair of sneakers and lists thirteen pages worth of charities, linking to Web sites where donations can be made directly. It displays a T-shirt with the words “Conscience clea(RED).”

[World Affairs

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