"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Us and them: The curse of celebrity activism

The core belief at the heart of humanitarianism is indisputably a noble one, faultless even; who could argue with the principle that we ought collectively to take responsibility for improving human welfare? 

And yet the realisation of that ideal is often muddied by the agendas of the neediest, self-proclaimed worthiest of humanitarian ambassadors — celebrities.

Arguing the merits of celebrity endorsement for charitable causes will no doubt launch you into a fraught debate. In an age, indeed for a species, where greater value (and newspaper space) is reserved for the attractive and the popular, and when incessant conflict and misery can pound even the most unswerving optimists, the stamp of fame can be a tempting way to gain traction for an otherwise desperate situation.

If the goal is to create positive change, surely the means justify the ends?  Not necessarily so, in fact it can have quite the opposite effect.

Take the latest celebrity “African adventure” featuring Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, who headed to Sierra Leone as humanitarian ambassador (a title that proves to be deeply questionable) for World Vision.

From the outset, The Telegraph’s Jake Wallis Simons, who accompanied her, sets the scene, in the style of those 19th century travel reports written to satisfy the European’s desire for faraway tales of the exotic and inhumane Other:

“It is hot and close when we step off the plane. The sun is setting; palm trees bow their heads against the clouds, and wood fires can be smelled around the airport. McGovern and her daughter walk into the open air together, absorbing the alien sights and sounds of this new continent.”

McGovern herself makes many witless observations, from being impressed by the healthy cuisine, to how she feels like she’s on holiday, and gets “the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home”.

As the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński highlighted in his comparably more intelligent reflections on portrayals of Africa, residents of the Global South are continually regarded as aliens (a term tellingly used by Wallis Simons above), rather than full partners sharing responsibility for the fate of humankind.

In this well-considered paper, ‘Bono, Band Aid, and Before: Celebrity Humanitarianism, Music and the Objects of its Action’, the divisive if not corrosive effect of celebrity involvement — no matter how noble the intention — is undeniable.

Authors Ami Shah, Bruce Hall and Edward Carr show how events such as Live Aid and Band Aid, and the activism of other figures before and since, erroneously position the celebrity as “educator to the public, initiator of mass action, influence on policy”, shifting the angle of the issue to one that merely scratches the palatable surface and ignores the complex realities.

Each concert, each African adventure, is perfectly effective in bonding those involved with those who observe. But the recipient of their aid, the beneficiary of their mission, is kept at a conspicuous distance. The report notes:

“The celebrity defines a problem and raises awareness about their particular representation of the problem, points to and legitimizes a solution to the problem, and therefore empowers that solution.”

Geldof and Bono’s early agenda, to evoke a common sense of humanity between the Western world and the Global South, was enacted in such a way as to reinforce a kind of global class system, highlighting how some of us are just that little bit more human than others.

The lyrics Of Live Aid, for instance, invoke a sense of difference, of the privileged West rescuer versus the needy developing world:  “There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread of fear….Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”.

The culprits to blame for the poverty divide, in the celebrity’s soundbite-friendly terms, are inept and corrupt governments. The concert, the talk, the endorsement never really conveys the complexities of the issue, whether its famine or war.

You could say, why should it, at least celebrities raise awareness and surely that is a good thing — bringing abuses and injustice out of the shadows.

The reality is that most people will not engage beyond what they are presented with, and if they are presented with baseline campaigning notions, these are what they will pedal, and these are what will be used by politicians and governments to appease the popular campaign, without involving the Global South or other key participants in addressing the real problems.

The authors site research by Volunteer Services Overseas UK which in 2001 surveyed 1,000 adults. The results showed how public knowledge of Africa is shaped by these stereotypes — 80% of respondents associated the developing world with images of aid, famine, disaster and helplessness.

The narrative of innocent, helpless and hopeless victimhood thus prevails. And the problems are reduced to platitudes with seemingly simple answers. As Shah, Hall and Carr conclude:

“Little of value can be built on such unstable ground.”

Geography is history: Going back to the start

In praise of paper