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Celebrity Humanitarianism: A help or a hindrance?

by on April 4, 2014

Ever more celebrities such as Bob Geldof and Brad Pitt to name but a few, link themselves to humanitarian efforts and philanthropy. Agencies such as the United Nations can clearly see the positives celebrities can bring to humanitarian effort, seen their use of goodwill ambassadors such as Angelina Jolie. The more positive reflections upon celebrity humanitarianism see it as an alternative political agency with celebrities having the ability to highlight issues on the international realm and act as agenda setters and therefore a help in humanitarian efforts. Bob Geldof’s Live Aid for example, highlights this in action. Through Live Aid, Ethiopia’s famine and drought crisis was brought to the forefront of international politics, with leaders from across the globe coming together to discuss the issue. Celebrity humanitarianism is also thought to act as an alternative to more closed forms of public diplomacy. Celebrities have the ability to not only lobby governments in more traditional forms of political interactions but are also able to publicise issues through other more open avenues. These include Bono’s publications in Vanity Fair and The independent regarding economic issues. What is more, some celebrities have also been seen to fill a void in which there has previous been a certain amount of disenchantment between foreign policy and the public. Celebrities have the ability to represent cosmopolitanism to this public audience and as such connect to audiences which may have otherwise been left disengaged.

The question of whether celebrity humanitarianism is a help or a hindrance raises its head as there appears to be a more sinister side to this seemingly altruistic, selfless humanitarianism. While it is hard to refute that celebrities such as Bob Geldof and Bono have not only been a part of causes supporting the alleviation of suffering in some of the poorest parts of the world. There is nonetheless, an undeniably more threatening side to celebrity humanitarianism with it at best, unintentionally underpinning capitalist ideas that some feel in fact create suffering and inequality and at worst can be seen as manipulating collision of celebrities and media corporations to sell suffering to the public and influence the underclass. Though the intentions of celebrities may be sincere, it seems that their, all be it unpremeditated attachments with big corporations through their careers lead some to believe celebrity humanitarianism to be little more than another form of capitalist power and an indirect contributor to inequality and suffering . Less sympathetic critics however, feel that in some cases, celebrities and capitalist corporations are knowingly attempting to manipulate consumers in their commoditizing of suffering, in Bono’s RED campaign for example. Suffering is bought and sold as nothing more than a commodity and merely exacerbates and represents capitalist power at work.

Celebrity humanitarianism without doubt has the ability to draw in audiences to pain and suffering throughout the globe. It is also able to act as an alternative political agency by delivering public diplomacy in an alternative to the state driven forms it usually takes. The links celebrities have to mass capitalist corporations and the capitalist nature of some aspects of humanitarianism however, cause some to feel celebrity humanitarianism can act as more or a hindrance than a help to philanthropy and can even reinforce capitalist ideas and further intensify the inequalities and injustices it can cause.

• Wheeler, M. Kapoor, I. (2012). Should celebrities promote charities.Available:

• Wheeler, M (2013). Celebrity Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press. p159-172.


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One Comment
  1. This post provides a balanced and clear overview of the debate on celebrity activitism, although there are some typographical errors (it should be ‘commodification’ for example). It would have been nice if you had inserted some links within the post, for example to Bono’s articles which you mention in the first paragraph.

    There are two main areas for improvement when you come to revise this entry for inclusion in your portfolio:

    1. Please make more references to this debate in the academic literature. You have inserted two items on your bibliography, but I should have liked more engagement with the literature in the post itself, with some Harvard style references.

    2. Exploring an individual case study as a means of illuminating and testing the propositions of each side in the debate would have given your post more edge and provided more scope for analysis. For instance, how does the work of Jolie stand up against the claims of both sides in the debate? Is she an apologist for the capitalist system?

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