Rarely a day goes by without headlines about another celebrity supporting another aid cause. Several websites help to find out what celebrity supports what cause in case you’re confused or need to find a suitable spokesperson for a cause. On the last International Women’s Day, major publications were filled with columns penned by female celebrities calling attention to the inequalities and oppression of women worldwide. Amidst the constant parade of celebaid, an article in The Guardian asked if celebrities have a role to play in development. Decades into the process, the celebrification of aid is here to stay. It will remain a staple of the aid industry, woven into the information strategies of international and local organizations. International aid is stuck with stars.
In a celebrity-obsessed culture, the celebrification of aid represents the convergence of several trends. The fickle attention of news organizations and their never-ending search for quick headline news creates a built-in demand for instantaneously recognizable newsmakers. The fragmentation of international development in countless programs and organizations pushes all parties to conduct media relations to stand out in a crowded field. At a time of individualized, image management, public relations consultants advise celebrity clients to embrace social causes to help public perception and remain in the media eye. Socially committed celebrities capitalize on their ability to be followed by cameras during their visits to clinics, refugee camps, parliamentary hearings, and other sites to bring media attention to their causes.
Apologists believe celebrities are a boon to aid – they bring funding, reputability, and recognition, even if it is fleeting given the short-attention span of the news media. In the name of pragmatism, celebaid is defended as a strategy to gain notice in a world filled with demands and information. Just as celebrities help to sell magazines, consumer brands, and other commodities, they provide strength for international aid’s information jujitsu. Celebrities believe that they help to shine a light on issues that the media and politicians ignore. Critics don’t buy it. They find it demeaning that serious social problems that disproportionally affect the world’s poor become identified with glamorous stars. It perpetuates hurtful stereotypes of Western saviors on the rescue of defenseless, passive non-Westerners. It conveys deeply misleading assumptions about the nature and solutions to global poverty and other forms of inequality. It reinforces a “now-you-see-now-you-don’t” perception incompatible with the urgency and permanence of global challenges. Other critics, such as economist William Easterly, believe that problem is not celebaid per se, but the model of celebrity-activist. In his mind, the transition from Lennon to Bono as quintessential incarnations of the rock star as committed celebrity shows the regrettable transformation of the “celebrity-as-rebel” into “celebrity-as-advocate” who hobnobs with the powers of the world and bills himself as a technocratic expert. Instead of speaking truth to power, Easterly argues, the new crop of celebrities is too obsequious with power and to share the table with despots and accomplices in their efforts to wrestle funds and political will.
Given that stars are part of the aid firmament, the question is not whether famous people have a role in development. The question is, “What role should celebrities play? How should organizations working on international development smartly approach the marriage of fame and social change? Instead of embracing celebrities in the name of the realpolitik of media relations, or because “everybody does it,” aid agencies should think broadly and strategically.
What is remarkable is that, despite the conventional wisdom that social causes need famous sponsors in the age of information, there is no sufficient evidence to justify the assumption that celebrities necessarily deliver news attention to aid agencies and organizations. Some studies (full disclosure, I’m the editor of the journal that published this article) show that star power isn’t synonymous with news-making. For every case of effective celebrity-driven news, countless efforts gained little or no media attention. Although evidence shows that celebrity stories may successfully cue people into specific actions, such as testing for HIV/AIDS and cancer, or getting immunized, the data do not persuasively suggest that paparazzi would inevitably swarm to celebrities as social activists. Agencies should not believe their own press.
Nor do we have evidence that celebrities contribute to policy changes. Certainly, they bring extra cameras to cavernous parliamentary chambers when they give depositions in committee hearings. They bring pizzazz to otherwise dry events. Aside from anecdotes of star-struck officials and a-fluttered aides, there are no indications that celebrity witnesses are deal-makers.
Nor do we know that celebrity news, even if they make issues temporarily salient, shake off inattentive publics beyond pleas to sign checks or make credit card authorizations. Indeed, it could be argued that conventional news-making may generate “celebrity” and “aid fatigue” that tunes people out rather than triggering to action.
The problem is thinking about celebrities simply as news baits, a reflection of the pervasive notion of understanding communication as information and news-making in aid. News are ephemeral. The voracity of news organizations quickly swallows fresh news that demanded significant planning, resources and time from aid staff (who typically work in “communication” offices on shoestring budgets). The codes of soft news quickly transform complex and important issues into a series of one liners, clichés, and fifteen-second aid fame.
News shouldn’t be mainly conceived as instances of symbolic politics to remind a distracted public that problems exist and that they weren’t magically solved after the last star-studded event. The logic of celebrities as brands, as famous names attached to a development issue supports a vacuous politics of symbolism rather than the raucous politics of social change.
Instead, celebrity-driven news need to be embedded in strategies to support local processes. They should be approached as opportunities to give voice to people. They should provide a deeper understanding of problems and vested interests responsible for the continuation of inequalities. They should downplay the trite narrative of charity and “assistentialism” in order to foreground local mobilization. They should stress that, ultimately, power redistribution is necessary to redress problems. Put it differently, they should be not primarily about celebrities as “issue brand,” as efforts to stamp a face on issues that represent the lives and hopes of ordinary people. Granted, several celebrities are fully aware of this difficult bargain, as they try to balance the allure of personal glam with the disinterest in social, long-term processes of the majority of the Western media. When cameras and policy makers show up, celebrity appearances should bring up collective action, achievements, obstacles, failures - the real drivers and process of change.
Celebaid should be guided by strategic thinking about fundamental social problems. Spasmodic news coverage, even if it results in minor blimps in public attention, does not amount to much in terms of effective social change. As long as it is mainly about individual celebrities, it plays into patronizing attitudes, feeds pity, and reinforces misleading perceptions about “nothing changes” in the world. It confirms the smug conviction that development and change are about us, Westerners. Without highlighting participation, policy and power, the tendency to put glamour and suffering in the same news narrative is perverse. It serves up easy, camera-ready information to cover. It adds a touch of do-goodness fame to the exotica of the wallpaper of daily news.