World AIDS Day and the unbearable lightness of, like, Kim Kardashian

Several celebrities are planning to raise awareness about World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. While there is nothing wrong with celebrities becoming activists, many of their ventures do little to assure donors that their money is being used well.

China Daily/Reuters
Students form a red ribbon during an HIV/ AIDS awareness rally ahead of World AIDS Day in Hanshan county, Anhui province on Nov. 29, 2010.

Well, World AIDS Day will soon be upon us. I've been bracing for another stupid Twitter stunt and whatever other kinds of ridiculousness might ensue in the name of marketing disguised as "awareness-raising." But I wasn't prepared for this:

On Wednesday, Kim Kardashian is going to die a little. So is her sister, Khloé, not to mention Lady Gaga, David LaChapelle, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Serena Williams and Elijah Wood.

That day is World AIDS Day, and each of these people (as well as a host of others – the list keeps growing) will sacrifice his or her own digital life. By which these celebrities mean they will stop communicating via Twitter and Facebook. They will not be resuscitated, they say, until their fans donate $1 million.

Dear sweet heavenly daylights. Internets, we have an opportunity to shut the Kardashians down for good. Don't fail us.

Seriously, though, if this ain't some badvocacy, then I don't know what is. I have no idea whether Alicia Keys runs a reputable charity or not. (Tom Murphy at A View from the Cave helpfully points out the fact that a lack of clear information about exactly what Keep a Child Alive does is a tiny bit problematic.) The Keep a Child Alive website features lots of anecdotes but very little hard data.

What I do know is that the campaign has lots of markers of the sort of advocacy that raises eyebrows among people who know what they're doing with these things. What are those telltale signs?

  • The campaign emphasizes the innovative use of social media over what the money raised will actually be used for beyond vague promises to "keep a child alive."
  • Rather than allowing the voices of those living with HIV/AIDS to be heard, the campaign is all about celebrities and their voices or the lack thereof. The campaign reduces people living with HIV/AIDS to helpless victims in need of foreign saviors.
  • There's no measurement and evaluation data on the organization's website that I can find. That data may or may not exist, but without it, there's no way to evaluate whether Keep a Child Alive is using the most effective measures possible to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
  • This particular event appears to be an attention-grabbing stunt. Need I point out that pictures of celebrities in coffins have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual experiences of people living with or in communities affected by this epidemic?

And then there's this:

“We’re not one of those enormous twinset-and-pearls kind of bureaucracies; we’re a small, energetic activist organization,” Ms. Blake says. “And we think the language of donations is boring.”

Ms. Keys agrees, describing her philanthropic approach as simply “rock star.”

“Everything is done just rebellious,” she says. “You want to show all your folks and your friends: ‘Look what I’m into. Get into it, too!’”

Anybody want to take bets on whether a "rebellious" activist organization that's bored with standard procedures for donations bothers to do measurement and evaluation?

(Hat tip for the link to Kim Yi Dionne, whom, it just so happens, actually studies community responses to and understandings of HIV/AIDS. You should read her work.)

Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, blogs from Texas in Africa.

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