BERHIE: Self-Serving Motives Disguised as Activism
Cardamom, Spice and Human Rights
Published: Monday, March 19, 2012
Updated: Monday, March 19, 2012 21:03
Madonna’s publicist recently stated, “She’s focusing on Malawi. South Africa is Oprah’s territory.”
In response, Mother Jones magazine published a satirical map of Africa showing celebrities’ spheres of influence, suggesting a major fault with the humanitarian work done by celebrities. All too often, good intentions are coupled with hidden agendas for personal gain — whether it is for money, international prestige or personal esteem.
The phenomenon of the humanitarian celebrity is a symptom of both genuine interest in the third world as well as of the insufficient aid supplied by the United States and other world powers.
Due to pressing economic issues and increasing, though often exaggerated, military concerns, U.S. foreign aid comprises just about 1 percent of the nation’s annual budget. Though America is rhetorically supportive, tangible efforts for humanitarian relief remain stagnant, causing the neediest recipients of U.S. aid, like victims of the famine in Somalia, to suffer.
The humanitarian celebrity comes out of this environment of slow government action. Reputable aid organizations, such as the World Food Programme and the United Nations’ Goodwill Ambassadors, place celebrities at the forefront of humanitarian crises to draw attention. However, though altruistic in purpose, celebrities often muddy the purity of the endeavor and capitalize on the opportunity for personal gain.
This past summer, as activists scrambled to draw attention to the drought in the horn of Africa and the famine in Somalia, the need for a celebrity with a soapbox became apparent. It was not until this year that 50 Cent, whose current Facebook cover photo features him with an African soldier in the Somali bush, took up the task, after the worst of the famine was over.
The rapper’s fact-finding trip to southern Somalia was planned in tandem with the release of his new energy drink, “Street King,” which sends portions of its profits to feed children in Africa. During his trip, 50 Cent pledged that for every “like” his energy drink’s Facebook page received, he would donate a meal to Somalia. If the likes reached one million, he promised to double the donated meals.
The World Food Programme, which invited 50 Cent to visit the region, touted this vow to the media. It is impossible for me to consider his actions as anything but manipulative exploitation. The promise tacitly implies that this money is already budgeted and available to be donated. Even more, the rapper — whose net worth was valued at $100 million in March 2011 — could foot the bill. Instead, 50 Cent capitalized on the humanitarian aspect of his new energy drink endeavor, which has profits that go primarily into his own pocket.
There are, however, some celebrities whose paradigms for humanitarian service are authentic and genuine, such as George Clooney. Clooney, whose aid work has been widespread and enduring, has shown a specific interest in Sudan over the past decades.
His protests at the Sudanese embassy this past Friday exemplified an appropriate use of his fame to draw attention to accusations that President Omar al-Bashir has blocked food and aid from reaching peripheries of Sudan and parts of South Sudan. Various aid organizations estimate that a full-scale famine is imminent and will be upon Sudan and South Sudan in the coming months if this aid does not reach the southern region soon. Clooney, his father, human rights activist John Prendergast and a slew of Democratic congressmen were arrested in the protests, which successfully drew the media’s attention.
Such humanitarian efforts are visibly the result of time, research and dedication to particular causes. With time and experience, 50 Cent’s rookie efforts in Somalia will perhaps improve. For now, though they may provide aid, the rapper’s tactics are morally questionable at best.
The responsibility of humanitarian celebrities is to not compromise the virtue of their efforts by marketing their own goods. They must accept the responsibility to fight for the affected peoples and use their voices to make a difference; it is wrong for them to use these opportunities in reverse and benefit financially from the cause itself. Whenever personal gain is associated with humanitarian efforts, we must question the overall objectives and ethics.
Sophia Berhie is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. CARDAMOM, SPICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS appears every other Tuesday.