Does celebrity activism do more harm than good?

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Does celebrity activism do more harm than good?

Andrés Jiménez and Paul Cullen disagree on this difficult problem.


US pop star Madonna at the opening of her Mercy James hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

YES, says Andrés Jiménez, celebrity activism can do more harm than good.

Andrés has worked for NGOs in Costa Rica and Uganda in justice and conflicts. He has written for Waging Nonviolence and The Peace and Conflict Monitor. Now he is interested in responsible travel and community tourism.

NO, says Paul Culle, celebrity activism does not always do more harm than good.

He is a talent specialist. He started working in BBC drama before working as an agent for top actors. He still works with talent to get their support for good causes.

ANDRÉS: I think we usually follow our feelings in our day-to-day lives. We become interested in what we feel strongly about. Celebrities are often very good at this natural human tendency. But the skills that make a person do well in the world of celebrities are often not those that help to understand conflicts on the other side of the world.

Also, celebrity activism suggests that if we only have to know about an issue, we can do something to make a difference. That is the first step to make a change. But it is unreliable and does not usually lead to big changes.

Celebrities usually take actions on what they know best. They are good at getting attention from people around the world. But this often means that solutions need to come mainly from the outside, from generous actors who feel they must be involved.

I find that it is better to help to solve difficult issues through patient and long-term action with local activities on specific problems. That is better than celebrities leading campaigns that try to tell the world know about an issue that they have decided to be involved in.

PAUL: Does celebrity activism do any good? We think about that a lot. Celebrity support of good causes is not new. In 1929, J M Barrie gave the rights of the film, Peter Pan, to Great Ormond Street Hospital, in London. This gave it a lot of income for ever, and Harry Belafonte has supported civil rights and social causes since the 1950s.

Celebrities are not all the same with skills only good for showbusiness. They are a group with different skills which can help them to understand difficult issues.

Not many celebrities want to be involved with a campaign they know nothing about.

Knowledge, they say, is power. If we have no knowledge of something, then we cannot do anything to make a difference. I think it is really important for celebrities to use their power to bring important issues to a world audience.

ANDRÉS: It is important to know is happening in our community or in places far away and celebrities can help to bring issues to our attention. And, of course, all celebrities are not all the same and they do want to help bring change in the world. Bill Gates, for example, has been a very good philanthropist for years.

But good intentions and power do not always make someone the best person to explain an issue to the world. The person who speaks about a conflict is as important as what they say. Celebrities are from a very different world from the people they often try to help. It is not surprising that their ideas about what to do are not always the same as what local people need. That takes time and most celebrities do not have the interest or the time for that.

PAUL: I often say that not all celebrities are great speakers, and not all great speakers are celebrities. So I agree that it needs more than good intentions to explain an issue clearly. There has been criticism of charities what use celebrities to give their messages. In the UK, there has been criticism of Comic Relief for its use of ‘white saviours’ in their films. Of course, the famous faces have helped the charity to raise more than $1 billion in its 30 years.

Celebrities can open doors to the most influential people. Before they talk in public and give their opinions, they usually take advice. Fame alone can’t make someone best prepared to explain an issue to the world, but it can help them to make people take notice.

ANDRÉS: We need to talk about the power imbalances. Bill Gates is a good example of this problem.

People say Bill Gates is very well informed and really wants to help and make a difference. He is perhaps the perfect celebrity activist. But he is also an example of the problem. When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is involved in an issue in a certain part of the world, the power imbalances between their Foundation and the local people are likely to be very big in resources and influence. It is true that usually the plans and actions at a local and international level are those with most money and interest from others. Celebrities have a right to talk about their opinions. But I am not sure that people understand how much power they have so that people do not hear other very different ideas.

PAUL: I agree that there can be power imbalances when a celebrity philanthropist wants to work for an issue. But this is not only true for celebrity activists.

Madonna is a superstar who is involved with Malawi and this shows how philanthropy can go wrong. Raising Malawi is the non-profit organization she started. It has on its website a quote from Madonna saying she felt it was really important for her to be involved and to bring attention to the over a million children orphaned by AIDS.

There have been problems with Madonna’s involvement in Malawi from the beginning. Some people said she did not follow the law when she adopted four Malawian orphans, and there were problems with the millions of dollars wasted with bad management. And there was a criticism of her by former President Joyce Banda. She said her government had no obligation to give Madonna state treatment just because she is an international celebrity.

But people in Malawi seemed to support what Madonna gave to the country. Her celebrity brought investment and now people know about Malawi. Local people should not allow celebrities’ fame to stop them from using their own ideas in the ways they think best.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)