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Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman urge fans to help Africa

In a show of corporate social responsibility, DC Comics unleashes its superheroes on the problems in the Horn of Africa

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
Visitors dressed as DC Comics characters (left to right) the Hourman, Atom, and Flash stroll the sidewalk during the annual Comic Con Convention in San Diego in 2009. DC Comics is offering its iconic comic book heroes as champions in the effort to support humanitarian aid to the Horn of Africa.

On January 23, DC Comics announced a new campaign to support humanitarian work in the Horn of Africa, where a confluence of drought, famine, and Islamist militia rule have led some 13 million people to starvation.

The campaign, called “We Can Be Heroes,” is a partnership with Time Warner and Warner Bros. and features iconic characters from DC Comics’ “Justice League.” These familiar faces, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, will be broadcast widely on television, inviting viewers to go to the campaign website, where they can donate directly to aid humanitarian efforts in the Horn of Africa, or purchase goods like mugs or t-shirts whose proceeds partly (50 percent) will go to the campaign.

“While many individuals may feel powerless to effect change on their own, as part of a global campaign such as this, their efforts, combined with those of other donors, can create a world of change,” stated the campaign’s press release last week.

IN PICTURES: Monitor photographers in Africa

Alongside the advertising campaign, $2 million in cash donations, employee matching funds, and consumer matching funds will be donated to Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, and Mercy Corps over the next two years for their work in the Horn of Africa.

“We're launching ‘We Can Be Heroes’ now because the situation in the Horn of Africa is dire, and the people there are suffering the worst drought and famine in 60 years. There is urgency to the crisis, and we want and need to help now,” Diane Nelson, the president of DC Comics, told Dowser. “We feel fundamentally that the more people know about what's happening in the Horn of Africa, the more they will want to help. DC Comics' Justice League characters are the perfect heroes to motivate awareness and action for this urgent crisis,” she added.

Critics of Western aid programs, like Dambisa Moyo, have argued that ongoing flows of aid to African countries have done nothing to reduce poverty there. The famine in the East Horn is a crisis of a deep, structural nature; it rests on pre-existing, interlocking problems such as the rule of Al-Shabaab, climate change, and agricultural-production systems that lack resilience.

What can 2 million dollars do to alleviate a crisis like that?

“I hope the campaign will draw more attention, more public awareness, and donations,” Michael Kocher, vice president of international programs at the International Rescue Committee, told Dowser. “It is difficult in situations where the onset of an emergency is slow, unlike the tsunami in Japan or the earthquake in Haiti, which got peoples’ attention very quickly,” he added. “Ethiopia was pre-provisioning livestock before the drought, which helped to avert crisis there. But without good governance and security, these preventative measures only do so much.”

The idea of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) – and the DC Comics initiative is a good example of CSR – was birthed in the last few decades as companies began to envision their stakeholders – and not just their shareholders – as important beneficiaries of their services.

But CSR has not gone uncriticized. A few years ago, Forbes Magazine ran a series debating the idea: “Proponents insist that companies should take into account the interests of society as a whole while conducting business and claim they can do so profitably. Critics say only people can have moral obligations, and that companies are already helping the world by providing jobs for workers and goods for consumers. Others dismiss CSR as cynical marketing by rapacious, profit-maximizing multinationals,” Forbes explained in the series overview.

A recent study by Forbes suggests that CSR may be evolving – perhaps, it could be argued, due to some criticism that it is no more than “window dressing” or greenwashing. The study looked at CSR in the cases of Eli Lilly, MasterCard, and Hewlett-Packard, and also surveyed a wide array of companies worldwide, and observed a few trends. One of them is that volunteerism has become more important in recent years, indicating that companies seek to engage in social impact projects beyond philanthropy alone. Another is that philanthropy can be most helpful to business goals when the CEO is actively involved in the program.

Janine Schooley, senior vice president of programs at PCI, a California-based organization dedicated to supporting sustainable development efforts worldwide, shared with Dowser her views on the potential impact of corporate social responsibility campaigns.

"Here at PCI we have found partnering with corporations or corporate foundations to be quite strategic and helpful in addressing the needs of the vulnerable communities we serve in Sub-Saharan Africa. Corporate Social Responsibility provides us with yet another tool, another set of much needed resources, whether they be cash, in-kind, or human resources.  It takes effort to find the right intersection between a particular CSR focus and PCI's mission, but once we find it, the partnership can be very beneficial to all concerned,” she said.

How effective will DC Comic's CSR initiative be? Stay tuned. In the coming months we'll be monitoring the implementation of the initiative, tracking what happens from the idea of the aid program to the execution – in the US and in the Horn of Africa.

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