“We have entered a new era where celebrities increasingly occupy institutional positions of power – in this case through activist, diplomatic and charity initiatives.” (Tsaliki et al. 2011, p.9)
Recent years have seen a growth in the amount of celebrities engaged in humanitarian activities. The website Look to the Stars has calculated that over 2,500 charities have some form of celebrity support. Celebrities don’t intentionally go into humanitarian work and political activism with the intent of causing more harm than good, although recent studies reveal that the involvement of a celebrity with a cause tends to de-politicise activism. Celebrities are masking the complex dynamics of power and socioeconomic relations in favour of one simple, grand solution (Cole, Radley & Falisse, 2015).
When celebrities become involved with charities or start their own charity organisations it provides them with access to new outlets, political talk shows or international forums, and it also helps to polish their own personal brands and identities. Madonna, through her charity Raising Malawi, and Oprah Winfrey, through her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa have embraced the fight for girl’s education and poverty in Africa. However, while these celebrities hope to bring serious issues to a larger audience, and help found accommodation and education, the problems lie in their knowledge or expertise in the area.
In 2007 Oprah Winfrey officially opened the doors for the school she founded, a $40 (US) million dollar, Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. However, since opening, the Leadership School has faced a number of serious allegations. In November 2007 the school’s dormitory matron Virginia Makopo was charged with 13 separate counts of abuse. When Oprah addressed the public about these serious occurrences at her Leadership Academy for Girls, she stated that “I will do everything within my power to ensure [the girls’] safety and well-being,” (Oprah Winfrey, as referenced by Perry, 2007). However, in 2009, more allegations rocked the school as four pupils were expelled and another three suspended for ‘inappropriate behaviours’ which were said to include sexual misconduct against other students. Then, in 2011, another scandal rocked the school as a deceased newborn baby was found in the backpack of a 17 year old girls schoolbag.
Madonna Ciccone founded the organisation Raising Malawi in 2006; it was originally created in order to bring an end to the extreme poverty and hardship endured by Malawi’s one million orphans. However, the project was significantly weakened when auditors uncovered outlandish expenses within the business structure, including extravagant salaries, private cars and golf club memberships. In 2011 Madonna’s charity again came under fire when $3.8 (US) million disappeared and a planned school was left un-built. The intentions of Madonna’s Raising Malawi charity were again questioned later in 2011 after the President of Malawi accused her of exaggerating her charity’s contribution, of exploiting her aid work for personal publicity, and bullying state officials.
As these examples demonstrate, many flaws can be found in cases where celebrities have become involved in activism. However, there are certainly areas of charitable campaigning that have benefited enormously from celebrity exposure. For example, actor Ben Affleck can be considered a celebrity humanitarian for his work in the Eastern Congo. With over a dozen trips to eastern Congo, Affleck visited refugees in camps for internally displaced persons, hospitals, and gold mines where he met warlords and peacemakers, survivors and aid workers. Ben Affleck, together with the advisory firm Williamsworks formed the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI). As the advisory firm states on their website, “In 2007, Williamsworks began working to shape an inventive grant-making and advocacy organisation by and for the people of eastern Congo – an impactful and sustainable way to make a difference in the lives of people a world away,” (WIlliamsworks). The ECI has given grants to 23 community-based organisations. With the support of USAID, ECI has also created a database to connect funders to Congolese organisations. Unlike many other celebrity-founded organisations, the ECI is privately funded by a network of financial elites and does not rely on means-tested grant cycles or public support.
Sean Penn is another celebrity whose volunteer work can be considered humanitarian. The J/P Haitian Relief Organisation (HRO) is a non-profit organisation founded by Sean Penn in response to the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. J/P stands for Jenkins-Penn, a reference to Sanela Diana Jenkins, whose foundation supported initial relief efforts, with Sean Penn. Penn arrived in Haiti a week after the earthquake with the objective of distributing medicine to emergency trauma units within the country. He expected to stay for two weeks but is still active in rebuilding Haiti, working with local Haitians to build J/P HRO. With a staff of nearly 400, 98% of which are Haitian, J/P HRO continues to evolve as an organization renowned for sustainable, community-driven developments. Since 2010, the J/P Haitian Relief Organisation has treated more than 260,000 patients in two free clinics, helped 500 children receive free education, provided clean water to 10,000 people and distributed 14,500 tents to families across the country
Human Rights Center researcher Alexandra Babadin argues that celebrity humanitarians play an important bridging role, introducing a wide audience to issues in the developing world (2014). They also use their star power to gain access to policy-making circles to effect social and political change. Ben Affleck’s Initiative proposals are based on serious preparation, he has spent years gaining an in-depth understanding of Eastern Congo, consulted with professionals, and narrowed his advocacy efforts to a single region. Sean Penn has also been active in educating himself about Haiti’s people and culture, and Penn remains active in funding the construction of buildings and support systems for those in need, he is also involved in introducing health care, and providing support networks of trained people to help Haitian people recover.
As celebrity humanitarians grow in number and build influence, they should consider the potential implications, good and bad, that they may have on the lives of people around the world. Those celebrities who hope to change the world should take action, but only after educating themselves, through thoroughly understanding the global issues and participating in politics at all levels.
2013, ‘Sean Penn: It’s time to seize opportunities in Haiti, The World Bank, May 3, viewed 27 October 2013, http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2013/05/03/Sean-penn-haiti-jphro-opportunities
Budabin, AC 2014, ‘Do Celebrity Humanitarians Matter?’ Carnegie Council, December 11, viewed 27 October, http://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/ethics_online/0100
Cole G, Radley B, & Falisse JB 2015, ‘Who really benefits from celebrity activism?‘ The Guardian, 10 July, viewed 27 October 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/10/celebrity-activism-africa-live-aid
Eastern Congo Initiative, Williamsworks, viewed 27 October 2015, http://williamsworks.com/our-clients/eastern-congo-initiative/
Hedley, C 2009, ‘Oprah Winfrey School in South Africa Faces Second Sex Scandal’ The Telegraph, 31 March, viewed 28 October 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/southafrica/5082517/Oprah-Winfrey-school-in-South-Africa-faces-second-sex-scandal.html
Hughes, D 2011, ‘Cops Probe Body of Dead Newborn Found at Oprah Winfrey’s School’, ABC News, 18 February, viewed 27 October 2015 http://abcnews.go.com/International/troubles-oprah-winfreys-school-south-africa/story?id=12950275
Macatee, R 2013, ‘Sean Penn’s Haiti Relief Organization Receives $8.75 Million Grant, E Online, March 13, viewed 27 October, http://au.eonline.com/news/397096/sean-penn-s-haiti-relief-organization-receives-8-75-million-grant
Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, viewed 27 October 2015, http://www.owla.co.za/
Perry, A 2007, ‘Oprah Scandal Rocks South Africa’, Time, 5 November, viewed 27 October 2015, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1680715,00.html
Provest, C 2011, ‘Madonna’s folly in Malawi, The Guardian, 31 March, viewed 27 October, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/30/madonna-malawi-charity
Raising Malawi, viewed 27 October 2015, http://www.raisingmalawi.org/
Tsaliki L, Frangonikolopoulos, CA, Huliaras 2011, Transnational Celebrity Activism in Global Politics: Changing the World?. Bristol, GBR: Intellect LTD. ProQuest ebrary.
We are JPO 2010, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, http://jphro.org/