The NGO and the Celebrity: A Dying Romance?

Since its release in late November, Band Aid 30’s new single stormed the charts and raised more than £1 million in just a few minutes for the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. It also attracted widespread criticism from commentators who were less than pleased with the third return of lyrics such as ‘Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” – (a rather ridiculous rhetoric seeing as Christianity is the most practised religion in Africa at the moment, and Sierra Leone and Guinea are predominantly Muslim countries making the question completely irrelevant to the Ebola epidemic). But it is interesting that 29 years ago the first release of Band Aid received generally positive views, how widely it has been condemned it has been condemned this time.The Band aid story is part of a wider debate about celebrities and their involvement in NGOs; a controversial, complicated subject that no one seems clear about. The ‘celebrigod’ burst onto the development scene after the first release of band aid, but could their day be over? Is mass fundraising moving elsewhere to mobilise the masses?

There are many problems with band aid, the most obvious being the lyrics. In the original 1984 version, if you were to take Geldof at his word you would believe Africa to be a barren area where ‘no rain or rivers flow’ and ‘nothing ever grows’ thanks to the menace of the ‘burning sun’. This time round, the lyrics have been modified slightly but the infamous Christmas question still remains amongst other gems such as ‘where to comfort is to fear, where to touch is to be scared.’ We can at least be thankful this time they’re only talking about West Africa (only a mere 6 million km squared or so) rather than the entire continent. Of course, these lyrics feed into our unhelpful stereotypes on Africa and Africans, the dangers of which I wrote about last month.
But aside from the lyrics, the entire act has been criticised as self-righteous and patronising, that feeds into the uncomfortable idea of westerners as the ‘white saviour’. Al Jazeera ran a piece calling for Bob Geldof to ‘back off’, arguing that in fact West African artists had already released two much more fitting anthems for Ebola. ‘Africa Stop Ebola’ warns listeners about the dangers of touching dead bodies (one of the ways Ebola can be contacted) and urges people to go to the hospital (something many are too afraid to do.) Aside from this, others have questioned the ability of band aid to raise a large enough amount of money to have an effect. Proceeds raised by Band Aid 30 will not solve the Ebola epidemic, and fundraising efforts were already well-established by the time the recording was released. Médecins sans frontières had already raised 20 million pounds by November 2014.
So why does Band Aid exist? And why do celebrities so often become spokespeople for NGOs and crises abroad? Celebrity activism is largely regarded to be a recent idea; in 1984 Band Aid’s first release sparked a huge surge of celebrities taking on global campaigns for themselves. By having a celebrity on their side, an NGO could reach a large, loyal fan base over specific emergencies or appeals. Furthermore, many NGOs have justified their use of celebrities through their ability to influence political figures, who seem to enjoy brushing arms with the latest chart topper. An NGO can use the celebrity to create a spotlight over an issue that may need attention, which can generate large amounts of donations, support and even policy change. As Bob Geldof put it during the first Band Aid release, “This is not Charity. This is finely tuned politics.”
The flipside of this, of course, is the fact that celebrities can only often be used for ‘quick-fix’ campaigns that may not be the answer to the problems they are attempting to solve. The Ebola epidemic is a classic example; celebrity attention focusses on the immediate curing of and prevention of the spread of the disease. While this is extremely important and does need to be stopped, there is little or no focus in the media world on the overarching problem – the lack of infrastructure within these countries that allowed the disease to spread so quickly. Professor William Easterly has pointed out that celebrities’ altruistic intentions may do more harm because one issue gets an overwhelming (albeit fleeting) focus while others are not even discussed in the public sphere.

It is striking how for Band Aid it has been third time unlucky; the media has been quick to brand it as ‘patronising’ and ‘self-indulgent’ and there has been a vast range of criticism from different sources including NGOS themselves. Why this sudden change in the wind? The fact of the matter may be that the age of the activist-actor and Samaritan-singer may be over. With new platforms like social media becoming a quick and effective way to spread one message to many people, NGOs may have found another ‘quick-fix’ solution that doesn’t involve flying Kiera Knightley out to South Sudan. Campaigns such as the Ice Bucket Challenge have flooded the internet in the past year and mobilised hundreds of people that otherwise would not have donated to that particular charity; something that celebrities have been used to achieve in the past. Over the coming years, it will be interesting to see how NGOs tap into the massive fundraising potential that social media could possess and the affect that it may have on the influence of celebrities’ roles in crises appeals.

This isn’t to say that social media fundraising does not have exactly the same if not more issues, but it could well skip out the celebrity ‘middleman’ and harness the fundraising power of selfie-lovers. There will always be questions about the sustainability, ethics and effectiveness of large-scale, ‘quick-fix’, appeal fundraising, but are we witnessing a shift in approach by NGOs? Is this the end of the celebrity and the NGO? Watch this space…

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