Celebrities: The Problematic Heroes in Development

In the last decades, the commitment to tackle global issues has grown in popularity. With this increase there has also been a surge in the number of non-political figures, in particular superstars and personalities, who get involved in development and social change.

Celebrity activism and philanthropy dates back to the 1960s, during the civil rights movement in United States (Richey and Ponte, 2006). Some notorious figures who got involved were the singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who performed during a civil rights rally, and Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster, actors who supported the activist Martin Luther King (Richey and Ponte, 2006).

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, the first benefit concerts took place (Richey and Ponte, 2006). An example would be The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, organised by the artist George Harrison to raise money for Bangladeshi people displaced by the civil war (Richey and Ponte, 2006). However, a key benefit concert happened a decade after: Live Aid, a fundraising event organised by the artist Bob Geldof in 1985 (Richey and Ponte, 2006). One hundred and fifty million dollars were raised to help people affected by a famine in Ethiopia (Richey and Ponte, 2006).


(The Live Aid concert in 1985. Source: http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/history/live-aid-1985-thirty-years-9633721)

Currently, being involved in activism or/and charity work is a vital part of the celebrity persona. For instance, the actress Emma Watson has been the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women since 2014. Moreover, some superstars have started their own initiatives. That’s the case for artists like Beyoncé Knowles, who has her own charity to engage in humanitarian action, #BeyGood. Nevertheless, while celebrity activism and philanthropy can be seen as positive at first glance, there is a dilemma surrounding this topic.

On the one hand, there are benefits, such as attention drawn to problems affecting the globe and more awareness. An initiative that helps with this is the Global Citizen Festival, which happens annually in New York. The event includes music performances and speeches by public figures, from Hollywood superstars to international activists. The aim is to promote active citizenship amongst the public.

Furthermore, celebrities are good marketing strategies for NGOs and charities to get more support and funding. One of the latest personalities to get involved in this type of philanthropy is Alicia Keys, with her movement We Are Here, through which she is supporting social and climate justice causes by endorsing organisations like The Trayvon Martin Foundation, Oxfam and 350.

In addition, celebrities have a huge platform which can be let to those who are voiceless to facilitate social change. Recording artist Miley Cyrus did this earlier this year: she teamed up with LGBT+ individuals and the social network Instagram to run #InstaPride, a series of portraits and stories about LGBT+ individuals and their hardships. The project was shared in Cyrus’s own Instagram account, followed by millions across the world.


(The first post of the #InstaPride project.  Source: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/instapride-miley-cyrus-launches-transgender-youth-social-media-campaign-2297526.html)

On the other hand, the involvement of superstars in philanthropy and activism has drawbacks. One is over-simplification of solutions due to lack of knowledge and expertise. A clear instance would be the singer Bono and his anti-poverty approach for Africa (Dieter and Kumar, 2008). He relies on trade, aid, debt relief and education to develop the continent, when the problem is much more complex, including issues like poor governance (Dieter and Kumar, 2008).

Another weakness is how governments and inhabitants in developing countries lose power when foreign celebrities get too involved in their matters and members of the public follow their path. This quote by Goodman and Barnes (2011) explains it better: “The celebritisation of development has worked to turn ‘development’ as a wider project into one that is individualised, volunteerised, privatised and, ultimately, ‘responsibilised’ onto audiences, consumers and citizens (mainly of the North) as more celebrities take to their roles as endorsers of campaigns and causes.”

The last downside to talk about is superficiality (West, 2008). Many people tend to believe celebrities use charity campaigns to just improve their image (West, 2008). Meanwhile, their audience may not even focus on the problem being raised, concentrating more in the superstar and leading to “less substance in political processes” (West, 2008). A good illustration of this would be the controversy surrounding Angelina Jolie’s speech for the UN in April 2015. As a special envoy, she talked about the situation of Syrian refugees. However, media outlets and the public focused on the actress’s outfit, discussing whether if it was appropriate or not.


(Angelina Jolie the day of her speech for the UN. The controversy was about her breasts being noticeable through her shirt.  Source: http://www.justjared.com/2015/04/24/angelina-jolie-briefs-un-security-council-on-syria-crisis-video/)

Taking into account both the benefits and the drawbacks, it is clear the role of superstars and personalities in development is important and influential. Yet, there is an urgent need to reform celebrity interventions from saviour PR missions to facilitating meaningful actions. NGOs and charities should be more conscious when choosing personalities to represent them, and superstars should have more understanding of the issues they are trying to tackle.

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  1. Dieter, H., & Kumar, R. (2008). The downside of celebrity diplomacy: the neglected complexity of development. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 14(3), 259-264.
  2. Goodman, M. K., & Barnes, C. (2011). Star/poverty space: the making of the ‘development celebrity’. Celebrity studies, 2(1), 69-85.
  3. Richey, L. A., & Ponte, S. (2006). Better (RED) than dead: ‘brand aid’, celebrities and the new frontier of development assistance. Danish Institute for International Studies working paper no 2006/26. Copenhagen: DIIS.
  4. West, D. M. (2008). Angelina, Mia, and Bono: Celebrities and international development. Global development, 2, 74-84.



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