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.
Humor in Native culture has never been simply about entertainment. Comedy is also used to fight cultural invisibility and structural oppression.
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And then there’s Jay Z, who took the time to respond to Harry Belafonte’s criticism that today’s celebrities “have turned their back on social responsibility” with this:
Yeah, there’s a sense in which your damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Perhaps we should also highlight some good examples of activist celebrities. Bellafonte is one, for sure. Martin Sheen has done his part in a ton of ways. And I’m sure we could come up with others that are more recent. Just the other day on the radio I heard one of the actors from Orange Is the New Black saying really important and powerful stuff about the prison-industrial complex.
Or maybe having celebrities save us isn’t the goal after all.
Okay, wait, let me calm myself, and…hahahahaha!
First of all, thank you for your article, which resonated a lot with my own experiences. I was involved with Invisible Children since 2006 but around 2009-2010, I had begun to see a major shit in their mission and strategies, which I no longer supported. So in 2011, I cancelled my donations and subscriptions. I felt that I had made the right decision when Kony 2012 was released and, for the first time, I clearly saw what other people had been saying about IC for years.
More specifically, I have a question about your piece. Almost towards the end you said: “My experience working with armed conflicts and humanitarian crises has shown me the disastrous effects that such views tend to have on the ground.” However, although I read the whole article, I couldn’t find what precisely those “disastrous effects” you mention are. Could you please elaborate on that?
Finally, I found your closing remarks on what would be good to consider when getting involved in any cause very thought-provoking. I am currently getting involved in the LGBTQ movement here in Chile and I will most definitely be asking myself some of the questions you posed.
Again thank you y Pura Vida,
I agree with the previous comments about appearing to paint all work done by famous personalities with the same brush. Certainly Harry Belafonte stands out as clear example of a well-known personality whose activism work has significantly advanced the fight for civil-rights in the United States. Well known personalities can even play a powerful role in shaming and holding to account politicians and government leaders regarding their actions and policies.
However, what I severely criticize are those celebrities that feel compelled to become involved in severe conflicts and quickly design ambitious approaches and projects that can only live in the ‘elevated world’ of international politics and high diplomacy. Issues of sustainability, effectiveness, community ownership, local relevance, and adaptability to change, which are the lifeblood of any conflict transformation approach, are hardly taken in considerations by these broad top-down solutions.
I see continually see a massive gap between what is internationally applauded and promoted, and what the local communities actually want, need, or even find relevant. Sadly those excluded voices are not so easy to hear.
Here are some powerful examples of the complexities of intervening in international conflicts which might help you better understand the point I tried to make in the article:
“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.”
It doesn’t have to be – instead of falling down that slippery slope, you could also choose to investigate capitalism, which is the ultimate cause of most of these disasters in the first place. You could do worse than start by reading (yes, reading!) Marx.
Let us admit that the celebrities’ involvement does some good despite the problems involved. But that’s a drop in the bucket. It is also charity and insulting to the poor. The big issues are: Greed, Corruption, Impunity, Hypocrisy, the military-industrial complex, cruelty… Question: Why all those Tax Havens in the world – led by the American State of Delaware! and followed by Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, the UK, Bermuda, the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, Singapore, etc. – are not abolished once and for all? Tens of trillions of dollars are stashed away in them, which could be used to eradicate poverty and promote a green and sustainable economy in the world. To save the world: the rule of the oligarchs world and Speculation must be stopped. A people-oriented REAL economy established. The gap between the haves and the have nots must be narrowed significantly. the outrageous privileges of the rich eliminated… Peace, Sharing and Happiness should be basic values…
Leo Tolstoy once wrote to the effect: You sit on my back and oppress me, but assure me that you feel sorry for me and will do anything to alleviate my burden except get off my back! Right on, Leo! Stop Third World poverty by abolishing imperialism, colonialism and capitalism! Hi Ho!
it’s not just ‘celebrity’ activism that is unhelpful, it’s the behaviour you described in the article. not all celebrities act or are the same. Some (I can’t think of any, but i’m sure there are some) may approach a campaign with a genuine solidarity and interpersonal skills to work effectively with diverse people, and others not. Arrogant, patronising activism can come from anyone not also actively working on their own liberation.
Suggested reading for all should be Garry Leech’s ‘Capitalism: a structural genocide’, it could shake some to our do-gooder core and hopefully change some habits too.
Excellent article, Andres. We treat this subject and the negative unintended consequences in our 6-episode DVD Series on poverty and development.
See link below and let us know what you think 🙂
Charity That Hurts [PovertyCure Episode 1]
I think that aid is another key and vital element of what can be considered as a colonized and mechanistic approach to assistance and development work. I believe the question posed in the video about how do we connect our good intentions and desire to help with things that actually work is spot on. I have no solution for this dilemma, but I do believe that most effective strategies that address this issue are highly context specific and are organically generated from the creative energy present within the local communities. I think that our well intentioned desire to help can be fulfilled in the degree to which we can become facilitators of community action and actors that seek to disturb the system, but never to direct or control it.
Well said. Here’s one more video you’ll enjoy on this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxASM44gPlU