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.
"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.”
Lionello Boscardi, the chief “celebrity handler” for the UN’s World Food Program has worked with the likes of Angelina Jolie, designer Georgio Armani, marathon runner Paul Tergat, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, and, most recently, actress Drew Barrymore. “Usually celebrities are paid tens of thousands, even millions, to endorse products,” he says. “Of course, we don’t pay them, but we get much the same benefits from working with them, namely, they raise our profile.”
Covering Clinton’s annual Africa sojourn in previous years have been The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and Fortune magazine. This year, The Monitor, ABC-TV, and Elle and Ebony magazines sent reporters. GQ magazine sent a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” writer, a world-renowned photographer, and a senior editor – all following Clinton into the schoolyards of South Africa and antiretroviral drug warehouses of Tanzania.
Rarely does Africa get such high-gloss attention.
According to a June report by Julie Hollar of the national media watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), wrapping Africa stories in celebrity news is par for the course. For example, she notes, in the week that “Blood Diamond,” a Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was released in theaters last December, ABC, CBS, and NBC news programs mentioned the role of diamonds fueling Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war 11 times. But during the entire length of that war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, it was mentioned an average of twice a year.
Looking at one US network’s overall coverage of Africa over 2005-06, FAIR found that NBC Nightly News ran 70 Africa-related segments, of which 18, or one-quarter, featured celebrities. “Many of those [stories] focused on Bono, with whom NBC anchor Brian Williams traveled to Africa in May 2006,” points out FAIR, “... a trip that generated seven stories, six of which prominently featured the rock star.”
Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) critique points at a similar trend in the July Vanity Fair special Africa issue. Guest edited by Bono himself, the issue features 20 different covers, each of a different person involved in the “conversation” about Africa. Oprah, Brad Pitt, Madonna, and Jordan’s Queen Rania – a UNICEF advocate – participated. But only three Africans (of which only one currently lives in Africa) are featured. “This is a conversation ... by a group of well-known celebrities,” says CJR writer Gal Beckerman. “They are the ones here with agency to tell the story of Africa.”
But Clinton warns against being judgmental of either the media or its audience. It’s not that Americans do not care about Africa. Rather, he argues, people are just busy. “Most people are living their own lives.... A lot of Americans have their own difficulties. Until someone sees someone they know and can identify with out here doing this [aid work], they may not – even if generally aware of a problem – they may not really believe that any time or money they give can make a difference,” he says.
The Clinton entourage
“Which one? Which one?” panics Wilbert Wilson Magombo, a farmer in the rural Malawian village of Neno, who, along with thousands of others, has spent the day waiting for Clinton to arrive at this, his second stop on the journey. Mr. Magombo has neither a TV nor access to newspapers, so he has no idea what the famous man looks like. “We were told by our elders to be here and welcome Mr. President. But how will we know him?” he wonders. “There are so very many white visitors today!”
Indeed, the former president does not travel light.
On this trip, Clinton is joined by seven or eight of the top directors of his New York-based William J. Clinton Foundation, a couple of aides, more than a dozen Secret Service officers, a personal doctor, a personal photographer, 12 journalists, and a three-man press-handling team. In addition, there are a dozen wealthy donors who, last year, at an auction at Clinton’s 60th birthday bash, bid tens of thousands of dollars – all of which goes to the foundation – to go on this journey.
This makes for some 40-odd Africa trippers traveling in grand style on two luxury private jets, one lent by a Canadian mining financier friend, the other by Google. Both aircraft are outfitted with leather couches, iPod docks, en suite bedrooms, free little tubes of Aveda hand cream, and friendly flight attendants sweetly asking if anyone would care for some cold cuts.
“You have rich people in America who are saying: ‘There are plenty of Africans who could make as much money as I did. I was simply born in the right time in the right place....’ They know that,” says Clinton, giving a press conference on the jet, munching miniature pepperoni pizza slices. “There is no place you can go where you don’t come away with the feeling that poor people are just as smart as anyone else. They work just as hard, usually harder than anyone else, just to keep body and soul together and keep their children alive. What’s missing is opportunity and systems and access to education and money. That’s where we can help.”
Clinton sees part of his mission as showing wealthy individuals what they can accomplish here. Two years ago, he brought Tom Hunter on one of these trips. It worked out well – illustrating Clinton’s involvement in Africa at its best.
The two had met at a dinner party in London earlier that year. Mr. Hunter, the wealthiest man in Scotland, was seated next to the former president. “I knew very little about Africa, so he said: ‘If you are genuinely interested in Africa, come travel with me,’” recalls the dapper billionaire businessman.
During that trip, Hunter says, his “eyes were opened,” but he felt clueless about how to proceed. “I said, ‘How on earth could I make a difference? I don’t know anyone, I’m not networked here at all.’ And then I thought if we are going to get involved, what better partner could there be than President Clinton?”
Hunter subsequently pledged $100 million, launching the Clinton-Hunter development initiative under the Clinton Foundation umbrella. Today, he is on one of his frequent visits, checking in on his various projects to expand access to water, sanitation, healthcare, and agricultural markets in Malawi and Rwanda.
The respected organization Partners in Health (PIH), run by Harvard infectious disease specialist Paul Farmer, is implementing some of the Hunter projects here. The goal is to double per capita income within 10 years in the areas where they are working.
“In the last five years, there has been an explosion of celebrity attention to development, but Clinton is in a different category,” says Mr. Farmer, who, like Hunter, is in Neno, Malawi, waiting for the former president to arrive. “He is serious about the details. He keeps all his promises and he is extremely effective. In 20 years working in [development] ... I have not seen stuff move as quickly.”
The only thing not moving quickly at the moment, Farmer would agree, is Clinton himself. He’s stuck at the Johannesburg airport, where one of the swanky private jets has come down with engine trouble. The heat rises and the day drags on. A group of women in sarongs emblazoned with pictures of the Malawian president have been chanting “Welcome to our Village” for seven hours now.
And then, finally, just as one of the singers swoons and the ABC news crew finishes shooting more footage of rural Malawi than the network will need in a century, the 42nd president of the United States arrives. Sand flies everywhere as his helicopter touches down.
Clinton emerges as a whirling dervish of enthusiasm. He talks harvest details with the farmers, his mouth permanently puckered into an intrigued and encouraging “Ooo,” as the intricacies of transporting wheat to the capital are translated from Chichewa. He zooms along waving in his Land Rover motorcade, his eyes crinkling in delight. He hugs his friends Farmer and Hunter. He stops by a construction site and high-fives the workers, gives a quick press conference to the local press, and is off again, sand flying everywhere as the helicopter rises.
Magombo still does not know what Clinton looks like. “He was a bit far away, unfortunately,” explains the farmer as he prepares to walk six kilometers home. But, it has been a “very interesting day,” he confirms. “This visit is precious. We are so appreciative of Mr. President’s attention and for his financial assistance,” he says. “We are just poor farmers, and so we are so grateful.”