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good are goodwill ambassadors
Siegfried, IRIN News
October 28, 2013
professionals tend to cringe at the spectacle of khaki-clad celebrities
handing out food rations to refugees in Sudan or singing nursery
rhymes to orphans in Malawi, but there is no denying the global
attention and resources that well-known personalities can bring
to their chosen causes.
The UN has long
recognized this potential. It started using celebrities to publicize
its work and raise funds in 1954, with the appointment of American
entertainer Danny Kaye as the UN Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF)
first Goodwill Ambassador. The UN now has 183 Goodwill Ambassadors,
and most international aid organizations have followed suit with
their own celebrity ambassador programmes.
But using actors,
musicians and sports stars to convey messages about potentially
complex development issues has its pitfalls. Recently, the US publication
People Magazine ran an article about singer Christina Aguilera’s
“emotional” trip to “war-torn” Rwanda as
an Ambassador Against Hunger for the UN World Food Programme.
of Rwanda touched me in a way I cannot express or put into words,”
says Aguilera in the article. “They are in a place that needs
our help, and I am so proud of the work that we are doing there."
describing Rwanda as war-torn was probably the fault of the journalist
rather than Aguilera, but the piece was lacerated by critics eager
to mock the singer’s apparent naivety and the suggestion that
a rapidly developing country like Rwanda needs an American celebrity
to save it.
In his 2012
paper, Celebrity Diplomacy, London Metropolitan University’s
Mark Wheeler described how the UN’s use of Goodwill Ambassadors
has evolved from the “glamorous conformity” of stars
like Danny Kaye and Audrey Hepburn to the more politically engaged
and problematic Goodwill Ambassadors of the 1980s and 1990s, such
as Richard Gere, who criticized the UN over its “non-recognition
Under UN Secretary-General
Kofi Anan, the use of Goodwill Ambassadors became “ubiquitous”,
and by the end of his tenure in 2006 there were more than 400 of
is then it gets out of control,” Wheeler told IRIN. “The
celebrity can actually act against your cause, like [singer] Geri
Haliwell, who was brought in to talk about sexually transmitted
diseases [for UNFPA] and ended up being completely out of her depth.”
who heads up UNICEF’s celebrity relations and partnerships
division in New York, said that a six to 12 month “courtship
period” is mandatory for celebrities before they are designated
Goodwill Ambassadors for UNICEF. “It’s really a getting-to-know-each-other
period,” she told IRIN. “It’s informing them,
knowing their interests, keeping them updated on our work.”
use the wrong person for the wrong issue, you’re setting them
up to fail,” she added.
Pasdeloup, who manages Oxfam’s Global Ambassador programme,
agreed that celebrities need to be thoroughly briefed and informed
about the purpose of a particular campaign before they make any
public appearances on behalf of the organization. At that point,
they are expected to convey core messages in their own words. “We
have statements and press releases and blogs that are done by Oxfam’s
core professionals. For the Ambassadors, it’s not the same
messages we expect,” she told IRIN. “They’ll say,
‘I met these people, I was moved, I think it’s unjust
and we need to act’, so it’s not like the nitty-gritty.”
She added that
one of main goals of using celebrities was to reach an audience
the organization would not normally reach and get them interested
in an issue. “It’s an essential entry point for people,”
she said. “Then we have policy papers and actions at all kinds
of other levels.”
has had a major impact on the ways celebrity ambassadors are able
to spread the messages of the organizations they represent.
the example of popular British rock band Coldplay, which is one
of Oxfam’s Global Ambassadors. “They have over 11 million
followers on Twitter, so if they tweet something about Oxfam, potentially
11 million people get that information on their smart phones,”
a South Africa-based social commentator and civil society insider,
welcomed the way in which celebrities can “lend their reach
to amplify our message”, but cautioned that “the danger
is celebrities over-simply the complexities of the challenges because
their audience is one that’s not used to dealing with nuance.”
regular people to care about poverty, and the risk is that if they
only care about it because Miley Cyrus does, it kind of diminishes
the complexity of what we’re trying to do,” she told
have gone further, arguing that the star power celebrities lend
to charitable causes diverts public attention from the real social
and economic causes of poverty and inequality and promotes simplistic
clichés about “basket case” Africa - a continent
in need of Western charity and incapable of solving its own problems.
The most scathing
such criticisms are often reserved for the go-it-alone brand of
celebrity activism made famous by U2 front-man Bono, who, notes
Wheeler, has lobbied Western governments to implement debt relief
for developing nations while being engaged in schemes to avoid paying
his own band’s taxes.
Bono as a cautionary tale for celebrities considering getting involved
“in the policy side of things” or founding their own
NGOs. “Your celebrity might give you access to important people,
but if you don’t have the technical knowledge, the roots on
the ground for you to broker meaningful agreements, you should just
stop at raising money.”
The more respectful
route, she argued, was for celebrities to align themselves with
existing credible institutions. “When there’s no visible
institution behind them, the suspicion is that it’s about
grandstanding - for building the persona of Bono, for example,”
return on the investment that UN agencies and NGOs make into ambassador
programmes appears to be far from scientific. Although celebrities
generally volunteer their time and often make personal donations,
there are costs associated with managing ambassador programmes and
flying celebrities and photographers out to visit projects in Madagascar
In 2006, the
Joint Inspection Unit - an independent, external oversight body
for the UN - conducted an evaluation of Goodwill Ambassador programmes
run by UN agencies. It recommended that the number of these ambassadors
be “rationalized” and their services limited to a two-year
period, “renewable subject to an end-of-term evaluation of
the job carried out by the Goodwill Ambassador and its impact”.
It also recommended more self-financing of travel by Goodwill Ambassadors
who, in most cases, could readily afford it.
At UNICEF, which
continues to maintain the largest Goodwill Ambassador programme
- with 30 global ambassadors, 13 regional ones and well over a 100
national ones - self-financing is encouraged, according to Buckanoff,
but varies on a case-by-case basis.
return on a celebrity trip to a UNICEF project was not precise,
but Buckanoff said the amount of media coverage and social media
interest generated, as well as funds raised, gave a strong indication.
“It’s very cost-effective because we would never reach
the numbers we reach if we didn’t have them to help us,”
Poltier-Mutal, communications partnerships manager with the UN Development
Programme (UNDP), said her agency does annual reports to gauge the
impacts of its nine international Goodwill Ambassadors.
learned to be very strategic. We call on them only when we are sure
we will receive a return on the investment of their time and energy,”
she told IRIN.
A frequent criticism
of celebrity activists has been that the most-high profile ones
are invariably drawn from Europe and the US, reinforcing the perception
that Africa needs to be saved by the West. An increasing number
of Goodwill Ambassadors, particularly regional and national ones,
are now drawn from developing countries, but in an era when traditional
donor sources are drying up, “the kinds of resources that
celebrities from the West have, particularly from the US, is pretty
unparalleled,” said Msimang.
it’s done well, it has potential to be a win-win,” she
added. “You raise the profile of a cause and you also add
gravitas to celebrities who may or may not deserve it.”
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