Colonization: From Missionaries to Celebrities

Posted: March 7, 2012 by jerkmag in VAULT -- archives

Akon has dibs on Senegal. Botswana is divided between Russell Simmons and Kim Kardashian. Don’t even get me started on Ethiopia.

Yep, celebrity altruism has been taken to a whole new level over the past few years as famous stars have started to claim entire countries as their own. Now Brangelina-scale aid projects seem almost required once celebrities reach a certain level of wealth: and Africa is the most popular continent for celebrity colonization activities. This map even breaks down whose turf is whose. Whether it’s Oprah building a school in South Africa (ignoring those pesky sexual misconduct allegations about the staff) or George Clooney advocating for Sudan through his movies and charity, celebrity aid seems to be at the very least a noble act. Most recently, rapper 50 Cent toured Somalia by the request of the World Food Program. But for all the attention, is celebrity involvement really about eliminating world hunger or more about promoting energy drinks and albums *cough* 50 Cent *cough*.[1]

The movement started decades ago. We’ve all heard the 1984 hit “Do They Know it’s Christmas Time?” written by Bob Geldof (which, by the way, is surprisingly off-putting if you have ever really listened to the lyrics). The song was produced by Band Aid as a way of raising relief money for the two-year famine in Ethiopia. The single, which sold 3.5 million copies, generated a lot of money and became the basis for a future of international advocacy through celebrities.

The problem with many celebrity projects is that they are not sustainable or very effective. Sending cash to corrupt governments just supports the proliferation of corrupt governments. Sending millions of crayons or T-shirts to the developing world just creates a niche market for those products without producing any local jobs or economic growth in the country. Also, I think the drawbacks of making celebrities our international ambassadors are obvious.

That’s not to say there aren’t benefits. Celebrities are the perfect bait to use to make people who normally wouldn’t care about foreign affairs knowledgeable about the issues – at least for a moment. The resulting outcry is often passionate and can sometimes lead to enough empathy that it results in successful non-profits like Save Darfur. But bottom line, celebrities have money to make an impact, and they definitely have a much larger fan base than Congress. So a big part of me wonders – will the future of humanitarian aid be reliant on these stars?

-Nina Keehan


[1] For every like of 50 Cent’s Street King energy drink Facebook page, he would provide a meal to a starving child in Somalia. If the page received a million likes, he would donate an additional million meals.

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