Star power brings attention to Africa
Money soon follows, but do the A-listers understand the issues?
Rock star-like, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt, he reaches into the screaming crowds. Then, he's in khaki casual, clapping for the leaping Masai dancers. Now, he's posing with a row of Malawian nurses in pressed, blue uniforms. And there he is with South Africa's Nelson Mandela, holding the anti-apartheid icon's hand gently as the cameras blink.Skip to next paragraph
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"Beeeee-ll," whispers one Tanzanian tyke, his chubby hand outstretched, and immediately breaks into nervous tears. "Beeee-ll."
It's late July, and former President Bill Clinton is on a one-week whirlwind, four-country tour of Africa, grinning at the cameras and viewing aid projects.
The world's poorest, sickest, most war-ravaged continent is now the charity of choice for many of the West's best-known political, pop, and Hollywood stars. Think Bono, Madonna, and Oprah, just for starters.
Skeptics often belittle the rise in celebrity attention paid to Africa, calling it a fad. AIDS babies, hungry villagers, and uprooted refugees are today's must-have visual "accessories," they sneer, intended to burnish a star's profile in the eyes of a public that expects a moral dimension to its celebrities.
"This is the West's new image of itself: a sexy, politically active generation whose preferred means of spreading the word are magazine spreads with celebrities pictured in the foreground, forlorn Africans in the back," writes respected Nigerian-American novelist Uzodinma Iweala, in a July Washington Post opinion piece.
Mr. Clinton shakes his head. "Let's examine what's happening," he begins, in an interview over morning coffee in his hotel room in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. "A lot of artists, including movie stars, have a genuine feeling for people who are different from them," he says, warming to the topic. "It's easy ... to say, 'Oh, this is not serious, they are just trying to get press.' My experience has been this is not true. Not everything every actor does, works. Just like not everything I do works. Not everything [Microsoft chairman] Bill Gates does works. But it's not true that it's not genuine. By and large, it just is."
Bruce Sievers, a visiting scholar at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who is writing a book about the development of philanthropy, explains the surge in celebrity attention this way: "The bang for the buck is high in Africa. You can leverage your money and time. So you are not only bringing in more mosquito nets, but potentially shaping the entire national policy."
Of course, it's hard to gauge anyone's motivations. But one can ask whether these celebrities are really helping Africans.
The short answer: Yes, attention brings cash. But the quality and commitment of celebrity engagement varies widely.
Clinton's efforts, say a range of aid experts, offer an example of one of the more effective ways of using fame to do good.
The spotlight follows
Seventeen hours after leaving New York, with a pit stop in the Dominican Republic en route, Clinton arrives in Johannesburg, South Africa, to begin his journey. The first thing he does – before any visits to after-school programs, talks about climate change, or meetings about antiretroviral drug initiatives – is drop in on his friend Mr. Mandela. "Happy Birthday Madiba!" he sings, eyes twinkling, using the local nickname for the 89-year-old. "You are my inspiration in so much that I do." The elder man flashes a broad smile.
"Do these celebrities understand our issues?" asks Mandela's wife, activist Graça Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique. "Well, some do, some don't, to be honest."
But what is uniformly true about celebrities, she says, is that they get attention – for themselves, to some extent, but also for the issues they choose to highlight. And money usually follows attention.
“In some parts of this globe, there are persons that will listen to sports stars ... but they won’t listen to me,” explains Ms. Machel. “In some parts of the world, a musician will have a better audience than a priest.... People will listen to a filmmaker, but not a woman leader.” As long as these celebrities clearly define the issue they are dealing with and the audience they are addressing, she maintains, “Everyone has a space to participate.”