Why celebrity activism does more harm than good

International celebrities John Travolta and Kelly Preston were in South Africa for the World Cup Opening ceremonies in 2010 and paid a visit to the Nelson Mandela Childrens Foundation where they gave a donation of R 70 000 to benefit children's projects. (Flickr/Jennifer Su)

International celebrities John Travolta and Kelly Preston were in South Africa for the World Cup Opening ceremonies in 2010 and paid a visit to the Nelson Mandela Childrens Foundation where they gave a donation of   R 70 000 to benefit children’s projects. (Flickr/Jennifer Su)

As I sat in the stands of Pece Stadium in the northern Uganda town of Gulu on a sunny Sunday morning, a couple of young men made their way close to where I was sitting. We struck up a conversation, and they said that it was a pity that I had not witnessed the event that had taken place not long before my arrival in town a few weeks earlier.

My new friends began to describe how there had been a massive gathering in the stadium for the screening of a video put together by a foreign NGO. The video had profoundly upset a significant amount of those present that evening, and a riot broke out. I realized that, of course, they were talking about the launch of the first Kony 2012 video campaign by the U.S.-based organization Invisible Children. The video’s portrayal of the over two-decade-long conflict had deeply angered many of those who had endured it firsthand. The crowd ended up having to be dispersed by police and tear gas.

As I listened to the men’s account of how the crowd’s anger turned to violence, I could hardly keep myself from thinking how emblematic and representative such an event was of countless celebrity-fueled, do-good awareness campaigns that I had already had the misfortune to witness over the years.

The tragedy behind these sorts of campaigns is that they are motivated by the belief that problems around the world remain unresolved due to the lack of international awareness of their existence or global commitment to resolve them. If only enough people knew and cared about a certain conflict or problem, the assumption goes, then the combined energy and support could be harnessed in order to trigger an immediate flood of solutions. Any action taken toward this end is therefore righteous and will to put us a step closer to fixing the problem; surely any little bit of help must be better than nothing.

It is this mindset that has motivated celebrities like the rock star Bono to take up the causes of debt cancelation, the increase in foreign aid and the promotion of the Millennium Development Goals. Actor George Clooney has taken great interest in Darfur; Madonna and Oprah Winfrey have embraced the fight for girls’ education in Africa, while Angelina Jolie knocks at the doors of the major centers of power as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador to promote support for humanitarian relief. Unfortunately, many of the policies and remedies promoted by this ever-growing influx of celebrity activists have been heavily criticized for being paternalistic, detached from reality and often dangerously counterproductive.

However, far from being deterred, celebrity activists find solace in the assurances of so-called experts, specialists and analysts who fill the ranks of leading international organizations, Washington think tanks and Ivy League universities. These people are the Nicholas Kristofs and the Jeffry Sachses of the world who often find their self-assurance and sense of certainty in their Ivy League educations, in the power that their positions grant them or in the titles that they hold. Their almost complete confidence in their predictions and analyses, combined with the allure of celebrity, emboldens them to leap at the opportunity to promote what they consider to be the solutions for conflicts whose complexities they only superficially grasp.

Celebrity-led campaigns do often prove to be highly successful in generating broad public support. This is because they draw on the self-serving guilt trips that lead many people to believe that their privileged position has invested them with the burden and the responsibility to save those less fortunate from their plight. Celebrity activists provide us with a powerful outlet for our guilty consciences and our self-serving views of history. What better way to liberate ourselves from this burden than by taking up a global cause in a far-away land, and who better to show us the way to do it than our favorite celebrities?

My experience working with armed conflicts and humanitarian crises has shown me the disastrous effects that such views tend to have on the ground. Away from the fantasy world of easy-to-understand, black-and-white, single-story views of a conflict lays a world of complexity, depth and uncertainty. With the embrace of complexity we are able to discover that the way we seek to approach and work within a conflict must be incredibly flexible and diverse.

We need to distance ourselves from the powerful desire to follow simple solutions drafted by experts in conference rooms half a world away. We should begin, above all, by focusing on the creative energy already present among the local actors in a conflict in order to discover context-specific strategies that can help us to transform it.

Sadly, this approach does not fit well in a five-minute YouTube video or an inspirational TED Talk. Our fascination with pre-packaged solutions and our short attention spans are incompatible with appreciation for true complexity, humility and unpredictability.

If you feel invested in a cause, engage it with all your passion, but tread carefully. Ask yourself why you even care about this conflict in the first place? Whose voices are you listening to about it? Whose interests are they serving? What is already being tried by local actors on the ground? And, most importantly, why should you become involved?

If you do decide to take that leap, then start by listening rather than preaching, facilitating rather than commanding, cooperating rather than defeating, creating organically rather than planning mechanically, and seeking to unsettle the status quo rather than trying to control it in its entirety. Being told that you have an urgent responsibility to act in order to help solve a conflict that you hardly even knew existed in the first place is the first step down a slippery slope of continuous despair, wasted goodwill and neo-colonialism.

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