JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — First Bono, then Angelina Jolie, now Madonna. Africa is officially a Hollywood fad.
While visiting projects she funds for AIDS orphans in the southern African nation of Malawi this week, Madonna reportedly adopted a 13-month-old Malawian boy.
With so many Hollywood actors, British rock stars, and American talk show hosts beating a path to the continent – building schools, visiting refugee children, raising awareness on AIDS and the fighting in Darfur – it's a wonder the entertainment industry can still function. Their splashy arrival in the serious world of humanitarian aid has led some to question how much long-term good they are actually doing. But most aid agencies welcome it, saying that these A-listers draw more press attention (witness this story) to the issues than noncelebrity aid workers ever could.
"We're talking about building constituencies of interest," says Jeannie Zielinkski, country director for the international aid group CARE, responsible for aid programs in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. "If I made a funding appeal myself, I would only be singing to the choir, those who already care about Africa. How effective is that? But you get a celebrity singing a totally different song, reaching a much wider crowd, to me that is really useful."
In the troubled Sudanese region of Darfur – where hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have been killed, and millions of refugees live in makeshift camps – actors George Clooney, Don Cheadle, and Mia Farrow have visited, raised money, and spoken before Congress on the need to stop what many see as a genocide of Sudanese minorities.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jessica Lange and Angelina Jolie have visited burgeoning camps of people displaced by a decade of civil war, where perhaps 4 million were killed.
British pop singer Bono, of the rock group U2, has set up a Washington-based pressure group called DATA, which lobbies in the halls of Congress and in European capitals for debt relief among Africa's poorest nations. He's also launched high-end "ethical clothing" labels that promise fair working conditions in African textile factories.
And here in South Africa, in the township of Soweto near Johannesburg, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey has built her own school, hired her own teachers, and interviewed the hundreds of girls who will attend.
"Jessica Lange jumped feet first in the DRC (the Democratic Republic of Congo), and she was really moved by what she saw on the ground, particularly with women, the sexual violence and the rape," says Sarah Crowe, spokeswoman for UNICEF's operations in South Africa. "This is not to sideline the governments and the people on the ground doing real work, but when a celebrity comes to catapult an issue into people's consciousness, that has to be applauded."
"If [celebrities] are really willing to take the time to learn the issue, and they take it back home and invest some time in advancing longterm development, then they can do some good," says Ms. Zielinkski.
But that's a big if, say some economists and experts in African development. While Harvard University economist Jeffrey Sachs and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have lobbied for debt-relief and call for the world's richest countries to double aid to Africa, others like former World Bank economist William Easterly say that the goal is to wean Africa off of foreign aid altogether, and to help the continent to create its own sustainable economy.
Aside from emergency relief – such as the famines in the Horn of Africa, the tsunami in Indonesia, and the earthquake in Kashmir – donors need to completely rethink how aid is given, says Ross Herbert, a political analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. He says much more aid needs to be directed toward helping African economies become self-sufficient.
"The best way to help fix the lives of women is to get them jobs," Mr. Herbert says. "Bob Geldof [the rock star who organized the Live Aid concerts of the 1980s] came back to Africa 20 years later and asked what had changed. He was appalled."
"I think too much aid is based on the donor nations and agencies wanting to look good, so they choose the most poverty-stricken place and try to alleviate the conditions there," says Herbert. "That might make them look good, but it's not doing something to fix Africa."
"Look, it's nice for [celebrities] to come and donate money," says Frank Maphutha, manager of a dry cleaning business in Johannesburg. He cites the rare positive example of Ms. Winfrey's school for children in Soweto, but adds that, "We need to see how the money is being used. I want to see the results."
"The people of Africa, they are still hungry, most of them still don't get the benefits of freedom," says Oupa Sebotha, a street sweeper from Johannesburg.
Sibusiso Yaka, a security guard at a shopping center in Johannesburg, thinks it's great that Madonna has gone to Malawi to help out an orphanage.
Mind you, he's never heard of Madonna. But "if she can bring some good, and raise some money, that is good."