The Humanitarian Carnival: A Celebrity Vogue

As the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was broadcast, an American mother filmed her own “opening ceremony” from a dusty refugee camp in Chad. Over unsteady footage of Darfurian children running and playing football, a Sudanese child sung the national anthem. It was modest and moving—human theater that only grabbed attention because its creator happened to be a celebrity. Actress Mia Farrow appears in the final scene holding a torch made of brushwood. The vulnerability of Darfur’s children finds expression in Farrow’s trembling voice and drawn face. It is as visceral and empathetic a part as she has ever played, and it is for real. Darfur has become part of Mia Farrow.

But, then, the viscera of Darfur are as much about “us”—the faraway, affluent, anguished of America and Europe—as about the suffering people of a remote Sudanese province little known even to Africanist scholars five years ago. Farrow’s “dream for Darfur” Web site carries a newsfeed, and for every report from Sudan there are about three news stories about activist goings-on. That’s not uncommon among Darfur Web sites. The “Darfur Olympics” Web site proclaimed its intent to “put the spotlight on Darfur during the first week of the Olympics.” It would be more accurate to say it put the spotlight on the activists.

A celebrity playing a humanitarian role, such as Farrow does, acts as a bridge between a (Western) audience and a faraway tragedy. She is a focus for empathy, an emotional interpreter. While some columnists who write about foreign atrocities freight every sentence with bombast and outrage, a talented actress tells the story with just sufficient cues for the audience to supply the sadness and anger. That’s a far more potent performance. In some pictures, Farrow looks just as frail as the Darfurian refugees.

But a celebrity also brings handicaps to her role. The size of the audience and the length of the ovation are not the measure of success. Darfur events on American campuses and at town hall meetings are routinely acclaimed on the grounds that the world must pay attention. But unlike a Hollywood opening weekend, critical acclaim and box office receipts mean nothing unless they bring leverage for effective action. On that question, the jury hasn’t yet returned its verdict, but contemporary relief operations have done the wrong thing (and done too much of it) as often as they have not done enough. For this, today’s celebrity-saturated culture of humanitarianism deserves real blame.

The biggest peril for the movie star on the famine stage comes from the lure of playing the hero. It’s an old-fashioned role, but it still has an appeal, perhaps especially so to those who play fictional heroes whom they could never reprise in real life. Surrounded by people who are inarticulate (at least they don’t speak English) and apparently helpless, the visiting celebrity cannot be content to play a walk-on part. No, outsiders insist that they are protagonists. Not only that; their mental scripts have predetermined that they will be the saviors, or at least the instigators of salvation.

The results can be absurd. In June, Farrow approached the private security company Blackwater to see if they were ready to go to Darfur. On September 14, 2006, George Clooney spoke to the UN Security Council, just two weeks before the African peacekeeping force was scheduled to end its mission without any UN replacement in sight. He warned, “After September 30th you won’t need the UN. You will simply need men with shovels and bleached white linen and headstones.” According to Clooney, Darfur’s very existence depends upon our continued attention. “If we turn our heads and look away and hope they will disappear, then they will.”

Of course, Clooney’s predictions were off the mark—the UN didn’t come and violent fatalities in Darfur during all of 2006 were somewhere around 4,000, nearly half of them government soldiers and militiamen. In 2007, the number of killings dropped slightly. In 2008, the UN came and made not the slightest difference. But in April and September 2006, Clooney addressed vast rallies calling for UN troops to “save” Darfur. In private, U.S. officials concede that this pressure forced the U.S. government into an over-hasty attempt to impose UN peacekeepers on Sudan’s government. This, in turn, inflamed Khartoum’s suspicions, emboldened its enemies, and undermined slow-maturing efforts to find a compromise that would end the war.

Twenty-three years ago, when I trekked through Darfur during the famine of 1985, the term “disaster tourists” was coined to describe those who flitted in and out to gape at the misery. The Darfurians put on their own show for the visitors, expressing their gratitude for the food aid, which they called “Reagan,” after the man who had supposedly donated it.

Government officials and relief administrators interrupted their schedules to entertain the important visitors and then got back to catching up on lost time. Flatteringly and falsely, Darfurian chiefs said they would all have starved to death had “Reagan bread” not arrived. But when the rains came, they promptly abandoned their relief camps and walked home, hungry but hardy, to dig up the seeds they had stored and plant their fields. Relief officials were dismayed that their “helpless” famine refugees insisted on disappearing. But that is how they survived—they proved far more skilled at staying alive than foreign agencies proved at keeping them alive. The war of 2003­–04 changed that equation, but not completely.

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, was among the first Darfur genocide scriptwriters. Interviewed on PBS’s Wide Angle on July 1, 2008, Kristof explained, “I wrote, at one point, that what we needed was a Darfur puppy that everybody could say, ‘Oh, that’s the Darfur victim.’” He went on to admit—guardedly—to second thoughts: “Some of the most compelling, most admirable saviors, if you will, you know, aren’t the people riding in on white horses. They’re the people who are there.” He hasn’t abandoned his Manichean categories, just added a couple of local heroes.

Kristof’s interview followed the screening of a documentary, Heart of Darfur. The footage was shot by the British journalist Sally Thomas, but it had been re-edited to tell a different, simplified story compared to the version prepared for British television. Wide Angle’s version suggested that knights on white horses were exactly what were needed. “I think that China could resolve this in a pretty simple way,” said Kristof. If only fifty years of Sudanese political crisis were so easy to solve. But real world scripts don’t have a deus ex machina in act five.

Celebrities such as Mia Farrow, George Clooney, and Don Cheadle (who played the lead in the movie Hotel Rwanda) have converged on the Darfur issue from a mixture of motives, among them compassion and outrage. There are many other crises killing and displacing comparable numbers, but Darfur has the attraction of a moral narrative that, at first glance, features only black hats and white horses (and silent victims). It also helps that it’s one of the few areas of bipartisan consensus in Washington, DC, at a time of fierce acrimony in American politics. Another such political safe zone may be found, unexpectedly, in the global AIDS epidemic and especially its sub-Saharan epicenter.

In fact, an even bigger celebrity congregation revolves around HIV/AIDS and its sibling (in the Western social imagination, at least), African poverty. In a promotional video for the (RED) campaign, which purports to battle HIV/AIDS through commerce, Bono and Oprah Winfrey stroll down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, inspecting (RED) products—sunglasses, iPods, cellphones—and eagerly buying them up. Gap T-shirts printed with words such as “INSPI(RED)” are prominent among them. A percentage of each purchase price goes to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The message is not subtle—buy consumer brands and save Africans from dying of AIDS. On the (RED) Web site you can scroll over pictures of these items, making the designer brands pop up, and discover how many Africans you have saved even as you continue spending. In January 2008, Hallmark, Inc., launched “150 new ways to fight AIDS in Africa.” One might be forgiven for expecting new means of social marketing of condoms, or drugs for preventing transmission of HIV from pregnant mothers to their unborn children. But the ways of fighting AIDS included “greeting cards for everyday occasions, cards with sounds, everyday
gift wrap . . .”

(RED) was intensely marketed—some reports suggest that as much as $100 million was spent on promotion—and didn’t yield a return, at least in its first year. Launched in March 2006, a year later it had generated just $18 million for the Global Fund. Subsequent (RED) fact sheets say that (RED) “partners and events” have generated more than $100 million. But the product line had expanded to just thirteen items and its “make history” timeline, as of August 2008, lists no events subsequent to January 2008. (RED) has been on the receiving side of much criticism, some of it both witty and pointed. For example, the Web site www.buylesscrap.org has a banner: “Shopping is not a solution: Buy (Less). Give More.” It explains how to contribute directly to the Global Fund without buying a pair of sneakers and lists thirteen pages worth of charities, linking to Web sites where donations can be made directly. It displays a T-shirt with the words “Conscience clea(RED).”

For those who had observed Bono’s career as a campaigner for debt relief, trade reform, and more and better international aid, the launch of (RED) appeared an odd and regressive role for the singer. Among the celebrities who had flocked to Africa to embrace AIDS orphans and congratulate volunteer nurses, Bono’s insistence that overcoming poverty meant tackling complex policy questions was a striking and refreshing anomaly. The Irish rock star was brave enough to educate himself and demand that his fans, if they were serious about the cause, use their brains as well. Five years ago, Bono and his countryman Bob Geldof performed a superb double act on AIDS and poverty in Africa to force the hand of Prime Minister Tony Blair, when they thought his commitment to the cause was wobbling.

In May 2003, Tony Blair invited the leaders of Britain’s aid charities to breakfast at 10 Downing Street to canvass their views on what should be his government’s priorities for Africa. Apparently unscripted, Bob Geldof interrupted the aid chiefs’ presentations to lay out with practiced frankness the moral obscenity of the collapse in life chances of African children in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. Unshaven and unkempt, Geldof kept his vulgarities to a minimum but was typically colorful, describing the Labour government’s efforts to date as “pitiful.” Bono weighed in with facts and figures, speaking in a level, intense tone. Blair wasn’t disconcerted. The British prime minister made not a single concession on substance to the aid agency chiefs’ points, and by the time Blair left the room, he had charmed and impressed Britain’s international charity constituency.

Geldof and Bono were not so easily won over. While the aid agency bosses munched pastries, the two Irishmen lurked in the corridor waiting for Blair to reappear. And when he did, they frogmarched him out of the front door of Number 10 where the cameras were waiting for a quick press conference. Geldof announced his demand for a commission for Africa—he mentioned AIDS as the most pressing issue—and Blair rather weakly said he supported the idea. He had been bounced into Geldof’s agenda and was less than happy—but he knew better than to object. Geldof had been incubating this plan for a while, and the breakfast-time prime ministerial hijacking was a crucial step in the project that culminated in Blair’s “Commission for Africa” and the Live 8 concerts which accompanied the G8 Summit in Scotland in 2005, where world leaders made their largest-ever pledges to end poverty and provide universal access for AIDS medication by 2010.

This was the zenith of celebrity activism on AIDS and poverty in Africa, cannily imposed on an impressionable government. It’s unlikely that the ambitious goals will be met—but funds for assistance and AIDS have been moving in the right direction. Without the involvement of Bono and Geldof, it’s unlikely that President George W. Bush would have created his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and this year expanded its budget to $85 billion for the next five years, making it the largest-ever aid commitment for a single disease.

But image as well as substance is at play here, and it’s rarely clear whether publicity is the servant of the issue, or its master. The very fact that a rock star or actor moves onto the humanitarian stage reflects how celebrities diversify their roles across a range of media. Fresh from the G8 triumph, Bono plunged into project (RED), trading the thin air of summitry for cruising Michigan Avenue with Oprah. It’s difficult to imagine Geldof showing such enthusiasm for designer shopping—and not clear which brands would seek his endorsement.

Geldof’s own career as celebrity humanitarian had left him wiser to the unintended consequences of moral fervor mediatronically amplified. Nearly twenty years before “Brand Aid,” Geldof, then a minor rock star, inadvertently reinvented himself with what he first envisioned as a one-off charity record, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” produced by an assortment of rock musicians under the name Band Aid. His impetus was a BBC news report on famine in Ethiopia, which had crept up on the public unnoticed in the fall of 1984. The main culprit for the famine was the Ethiopian government, whose colonial-style counterinsurgency strategies and Stalinist-model agricultural policies had tipped a chronically poor peasantry over the edge into outright starvation. But the more readily accessible villains were the incompetence of the UN’s relief bureaucracy, the European Community’s ever-growing mountains of surplus food, and the stinginess of Western governments. Geldof was outraged at all and sundry and his messages—to put it mildly—lacked nuance. At one point during the Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, he appeared in the event’s studio, jabbing his finger on the table and promising that giving money would end hunger once and for all. “Just give us the fucking money.”

Band Aid wasn’t the first time that rock stars became humanitarian entrepreneurs. The 1971 concert for Bangladesh organized by Ravi Shankar and George Harrison preceded it. The concert raised just $240,000, which was donated to UNICEF for victims of the war in East Pakistan. Bigger amounts came from album sales and film rights, but these were slow to disburse, prompting John Lennon to comment that benefit concerts were a “rip-off.”

But the Band Aid phenomenon made Western politicians rush for cover. Neither Ronald Reagan nor Margaret Thatcher had considered that their electorates could be roused to philanthropic fury by pictures of starving Ethiopians. Aid money and food poured into Ethiopia, confounding the UN skeptics who had said Ethiopian ports couldn’t handle the quantities needed, but also confirming aid critics who argued that emergency food would be misused by the authorities. In the war-stricken areas of northern Ethiopia, entire government auxiliary forces were dubbed “wheat militias” because they were paid in UN food rations. When the Ethiopian army launched offensives at the height of the famine, American relief agencies rushed in behind the troops to set up centers to distribute UN food aid. An Irish agency gave assistance in resettlement sites where the Ethiopian government (in violation of the Geneva Conventions) had relocated many of the refugees at gunpoint or by denying them food rations elsewhere. The fact that the famine was a crime perpetrated by the Ethiopian government under President Mengistu Haile Mariam, and that relief agencies could become accomplices to that crime, were swept aside in a simplistic rush. The Ethiopian rebels, who ultimately won the civil war in 1991, estimate that the indiscriminate supply of humanitarian aid to the Mengistu government prolonged the war by at least a year.

To be precise, the rush was to be seen to deliver food. The public and politicians demanded visible action to salve their consciences. The pressure unleashed by Band Aid debased the currency of humanitarianism—high profile but less effective programs flourished at the expense of lower profile but more professional ones. The market for emergency relief is set by those who pay the bills, not those who eat the food, and donors wish to see their brand names on television when journalists arrive to cover the disaster. Best practice is low profile work using local staff, but this doesn’t impress foreign donors and the media, which makes it harder to obtain funds. In this case, advertising went up and quality went down. This pattern is a staple of publicity-driven emergency responses, seen again in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Band Aid set itself up as an independent charity to provide relief in Ethiopia, Sudan, and the west African Sahel, vowing not to fall into the bureaucratic sclerosis of existing agencies. It promptly toppled into several avoidable traps (for example, it bought a fleet of secondhand and unreliable trucks in Sudan, an initiative it quickly regretted). It skimped on administrative overhead, relying on donated office space and equipment. After five years, however, Band Aid surprised its detractors by doing exactly what it promised and closed up shop. And when it did, the charity commissioned an independent review of its operations, stating explicitly in the terms of reference that it would welcome an evaluation that addressed the question of whether aid in Ethiopia had made things worse or better. With a hint of political correctness, the evaluation contract was awarded to an African research consortium. And with a hint of self-interest, the researchers muted their critique of international aid operations.

Geldof hasn’t always navigated the contradictory demands of a simplified media narrative and the realities of delivering relief. Interviewed by Daniel Wolf for a documentary film, The Hunger Business, Geldof stoutly defended the Ethiopian aid effort, unwilling to acknowledge the critics who contended that it had helped prolong the war and hence the starvation. But his habitual and self-deprecating irreverence toward any form of authority, his astute (if discreet) critiques of his peers, and above all his persistence, mean that Geldof has at least learned to be skeptical toward the instant solutions he first espoused.

Celebrity humanitarianism has been around for barely a generation. Philanthropists with celebrity standing have been with us for over a century. Every American city has hospitals or theaters named after their benefactors. In Britain, General Charles Gordon stood paramount among Victorian imperialists who donned philanthropic garb. What contemporaries called the “Cultus Gordon” fed upon his Christian fervor and anti-slavery mission. These theatrics capsized British policy in the 1880s when London wanted to withdraw from Sudan in the face of the millenarian uprising headed by Mohammed Ahmad, the Mahdi. Well-orchestrated public pressure pushed the government instead to send Gordon—described by his biographer Lytton Strachey as a “fanatic”—to Khartoum, and his own messianic impulse encouraged him to delay the imperial withdrawal until he achieved his martyrdom at the hands of the Mahdi’s troops.

History gives more than a hint that this was what Gordon sought, or at least considered preferable to capitulating to his rival zealot. They finally met face-to-face when the Englishman’s decapitated head was handed to the victor of Khartoum. The power of Gordon’s celebrity grew after his death such that avenging him was a motive for the British reconquest of Sudan thirteen years later. Strachey drolly notes, “At any rate, it all ended very happily—in a glorious slaughter of twenty thousand Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for [Egyptian consul-general] Sir Evelyn Baring.” But in puncturing the Gordon Cult, Strachey neglected the way in which the heroic narrative really did shape imperial history.

The contemporary heir of Gordon is French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, the Red Cross doctor who founded Médecins Sans Frontières and subsequently developed humanitarian action as a brand of theater. If Geldof’s career exemplifies the celebrity-cum-humanitarian, Kouchner’s has been the journey of the humanitarian who sought out and found celebrity. Kouchner was originally moved to righteous rage during Nigeria’s civil war of 1967–70, when Biafran secessionists tried to break away from the federation. The International Committee of the Red Cross, hewing to a strict interpretation of humanitarian law, did not speak out on behalf of the Biafran cause and later shuttered its Biafran operation. Kouchner, convinced that the Nigerians were set to commit genocide against the Biafran populace, was furious. He quit the ICRC and founded Médecins Sans Frontières, aiming for a dynamic, courageous agency ready to rush in where the humanitarian establishment feared to tread.

Kouchner sees himself as a master of using the media to further humanitarian causes, employing his formidable network of contacts among journalists and opinion makers, as well as an instinctive sense of drama, to accomplish his aims. To his critics, Kouchner’s hunger for publicity frequently gets the better of his professional judgment. In 1992, he carried a sack of grain up a Mogadishu beach for the cameras; in 1999 he advocated vigorously for intervention in Kosovo; earlier this year he called for gunboat philanthropy for the victims of the Burmese typhoon.

In each case, what seemed at the time an irrefutable case of moral logic has subsequently been called into question. The Somali intervention became a disaster, the Kosovo campaign may have cost as many lives as it saved, and the prospect of military action against the Burmese generals was averted by wiser counsel. And let us not forget the historians’ verdict on the humanitarian effort to sustain the Biafran enclave back in 1968: “an act of unfortunate and profound folly,” according to Ian Smillie in his 1995 book, The Alms Bazaar, because it sustained Biafran resistance for more than a year after it would otherwise have collapsed. During this time, tens of thousands died, and when the inevitable Nigerian victory occurred, no massacres followed.

Lacking Geldof’s sense of irony and engaging humility, Kouchner’s humanitarian mission long ago fell victim to its progenitor’s egotism. While each of his projects may have failed, that is not how he judges his career. Evidence is as naught in the face of a good story, and for four decades, Kouchner has spun one after another. His success is that, as celebrities have gravitated from their own world to the humanitarian theater, Kouchner has done the reverse.

Measured by this two-way traffic in celebrities and activists, the Darfur crisis has broken all records. Some of the community leaders of displaced camps around the city of Al-Fashir reported having shaken hands with more than a dozen visiting heads of state—more than some of the visiting heads of state had themselves met. When the disaster tourists arrive, relief work grinds to a halt to cater to their every need. Back at home, meanwhile, Darfur was even the subject of a pioneering video game, “Darfur is Dying,” sponsored by Reebok and MTV.

Darfur has also turned more activists into aspiring celebrities, à la Kouchner, tempting with the allure of media profiles and prizes. This has clouded the judgment of, among others, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, described by the British legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg as a “celebrity lawyer.” Certainly Moreno Ocampo set a jurisprudential precedent by announcing his “public application” for an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at a press conference, more than six weeks before the legal text was finalized.

The Nigerian minority rights activist and insurgent leader Ken Saro-Wiwa said, “It’s one thing being an issue, another achieving our aims.” Two years later he was hanged. He had fatally misjudged the power of Western publicity in the face of a thuggish government. His Ogoni people have won only a marginally better deal. Darfurians may come to a similar conclusion. They couldn’t have asked for more celebrity endorsement. But they still haven’t gotten what they need—fighting and suffering continue with no end in sight. The facts of Darfur lead to a depressing conclusion: the moral hyperventilation of celebrities hasn’t helped and probably has hindered. But who needs empirics when there is a good story to tell?

Alex de Waal is a researcher, writer, and activist on African issues. He is program director at the Social Science Research Council.

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