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Can celebrities really get results?

Different stars take on different roles when helping out in Africa, but assessing the long-term improvements isn't easy.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 23, 2007

Arusha, Tanzania

Former President Bill Clinton is flying out of Malawi and into Zambia, absent-mindedly snacking on the in-flight samosas as he talks to the press. "Forget about Malawi. Think about where you were when you were 10 years old," he urges. "How did you get from being 10 ... to sitting in this plane?"

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His aides have heard the talk – more than once. But even they tilt their heads to listen.

"You may have had a lot of adventures. You may have been very brave. There may have even been some accidental opportunities," Mr. Clinton says. "But ... we all believed with all our hearts that there was a critical connection between the efforts we exerted and the results we achieved."

In Africa, he says, that connection does not exist – and he wants to help create it.

He speaks in earnest, repeating his points, pressing on about systems, capacity building, and Africa in general – a place that fills him with a great sense of purpose.

Clinton, like many other famous figures who have thrown themselves into bettering the continent, is passionate about what he does here. His efforts bring both media attention and money. But assessing the long-term results of this effort is more difficult.

"There are so many dimensions to intervening in a different culture," points out Bruce Sievers, a visiting scholar at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "The question is, how well informed are all the celebrities trying to do a thorough job in Africa, let alone those who just travel over and are blown away by the poverty?"

And are celebrities willing, he wants to know, to stick with programs they start for the necessary "at least" 20 years to come?

Just pretty faces, deep pockets?

The answer, of course, is that it depends. Celebrity attention to Africa runs the gamut. Some stars show up for a single celebrity poker match in Las Vegas or a benefit cocktail party in New York to raise awareness for an issue. Others write large checks, lend their names, and even roll up their sleeves to help, but still court controversy along the way. And yet others get deeply involved, hiring advisers and studying to understand the challenges, before deciding on what role they can play most effectively.

The "best" sort of celebrity involvement comes from those who "know their limitations better and are usually more genuinely interested in discovering how best to use their status," says Myles Spar, an HIV/AIDS specialist in Los Angeles who advises Doctors Without Borders.

Actors George Clooney and Don Cheadle, for example, have taken on advocacy for Darfur, as has actress-activist Mia Farrow, who – working with the Sudan expert Eric Reeves – is spearheading the "Genocide Olympics" campaign aimed at shaming China into pressuring Sudan's government to prevent violence in the troubled western region of Darfur.

And, famously, "Tomb Raider"-action-heroine-turned-UN-High-Commission-for-Refugees- (UNHCR)-spokeswoman Angelina Jolie has taken dozens of trips to refugee camps around the world and donated more than $6 million to help them. Ms. Jolie has said that she gets paid a "ridiculous amount of money" for what she does, and donates one-third of it to charity.

"We cannot close ourselves off to information and ignore the fact that millions of people are out there suffering. I honestly want to help," Jolie explained at a press conference when joining UNHCR in 2001. "All of us would like to believe that if we were in a bad situation, someone would help us."

Not surprisingly, influential public figures who don't get much coverage in such magazines as People and Rolling Stone typically offer more consistent and serious involvement in Africa.

Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, has dedicated a good portion of his post-White House years to such activities as monitoring complicated elections (68 to date), building houses, and eradicating Guinea worm, hardly the most glamorous of projects.