Humanitarian Aid and the Impoverished Rhetoric of Celebrity Advocacy

by Marouf A. Hasian (Author)
©2016 Textbook VI, 280 Pages


Providing a comparative study on celebrity advocacy – from the work of Bono, George Clooney, Madonna, Greg Mortenson, and Kim Kardashian West – this book provides scholars and readers with a better understanding of some of the short-term and long-term impacts of various forms of celebrity activism.
Each chapter illustrates how the impoverished rhetoric of celebrities often privileges the voices of those in the Global North over the efforts of local NGOs who have been working for years at addressing the same humanitarian crises. Whether we are talking about the building of schools for young women in Afghanistan or the satellite surveillance of potential genocidal acts carried out in the Sudan, various forms of celebrity advocacy resonate with scholars and members of the public who want to be seen «doing something.»
The author argues that more often than not, celebrity advocacy enhances a celebrity's reputation – but hinders the efforts of those who ask us to pay attention to the historical, structural, and material causes of these humanitarian crises.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1. The Growing Influence of Celebrity Advocacy and the Questions Raised by 21st-Century Celebrity Humanitarianism
  • Chapter 2. Bono’s and Geldof’s Legacies, Compassionate Consumption, and the Mythic Rise of “Band Aid” Celebrity Humanitarianism
  • Chapter 3. Madonna, Malawi, and the Role Celebrity Advocacy Plays in 21st-Century Adoption and Children’s Rights Controversies
  • Chapter 4. Three Cups of Tea, Militarized Celebrity Advocacy, and the Ideological Resonance of National Mythologies During Times of War
  • Chapter 5. The Ambivalent Power of Social Media and the Indigenous Paths Not Taken in Kony 2012
  • Chapter 6. “Angelina Touched Our Souls”: The Mixed Reception of Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey and the Quest for Justice for Rape Victims
  • Chapter 7. Kim Kardashian, “Fame for the Forgotten,” and Transmediated Remembrances of the Armenian Genocide
  • Chapter 8. “Not on Our Watch”: George Clooney’s Celebrity Activism in the Sudan and Neoliberal Calls of Genocide Prevention
  • Chapter 9. 21st-Century Lessons Learned and the Future of Celebrity Advocacy
  • Bibliography

← vi | 1 →

· 1 ·


There is little question that the 21st century has ushered in the age of what many have called, at different times, “celebrity advocacy,” “philanthrocapitalism,”1 “celebrity diplomacy,”2 “celebrity politics,”3 “celebrity humanitarianism,”4 “cause-related marketing,”5 or “development advocacy.”6 No wonder that Colleen O’Manique and Ronald Labonte decided to warn us that we need to be “wary of the 21st century’s new noblesse oblige that replaces the efficiency of tax-funded programs and transfers…with a consumption-driven ‘charitainment’ model.”7

However, what if changing governmental priorities in the global North and South have contributed to the promotion of this celebrity advocacy? Is it possible that a loss of public faith in governmental dispensation, and the growing regulation of developmental aid, has accompanied an incremental rise in expectations that private corporate ventures with popular celebrities can, and should, fill mythic gaps? Will celebrities, with their wealth and their connections, provide those panaceas that can help those living in the regions often characterized as the “underdeveloped” or “Third World”? Moreover, at a time when many Anglo-Americans are anxiously witnessing the rising influence of other “emerging” regional powers—including Brazil, China, and India—isn’t it time that we respect those celebrities who use their philanthrocapitalism ← 1 | 2 → for worthy U.S. or European “democratic” causes? The public hailing of the combined efforts of Hollywood celebrities, democratic leaders, UN representatives, NGO employees, and corporate CEOs creates the impression that Western capitalism is needed, alive and well, and that concerned rich nations are spreading the wealth in refurbished trickle-down projects.

How should critical cultural scholars, armed with their favorite materialist, postcolonial, poststructural, or other favorite academic theoretical perspective, approach the dispositifs (Michel Foucault) that are produced by so many of these contemporary publics, who seem to celebrate all of this celebrity diplomacy? During one of his lectures, Foucault explained that an “apparatus” that brought together power/knowledge/discourse was a “heterogeneous ensemble” of “philanthropic propositions,” discourses, institutions, laws, scientific statements, philosophical principles, and other fragmentary parts of any influential “system of relations.”8 In a host of ways this talk of an apparatus, or an influential dispositif, aptly describes the thickened rhetorics that are culturally co-produced by those who applaud celebrity humanitarianism.

Cheryl Lousley has made the convincing argument that populist humanitarianism is not just about the work of single individuals and their singular attempts at persuasion but rather about the formation of networks, what she calls “sentimental cultures,” that involve more than celebrity manipulation or the duping of publics.9 If this is the case, then we need books that can help us understand the critical rhetorical processes that contribute to the social production of this sentimentalism and understand the ways that we can help societies move away from “emergency” frameworks and toward the adoption of more “developmental” approaches to humanitarian aid.10 As I will argue in more detail in the concluding chapter, if we cannot be totally dismissive of these celebrity advocacy efforts, then we need to find constructive ways of channeling some of this energy in more productive ways.

Throughout this book, when I use the term “celebrity,” I will not always be referring to a single individual or the aura surrounding that one person. Instead, I follow the lead of Alice Marwick and danah boyd and argue that we need to think of the varied, rhetorical ways that publics and decision-makers write and talk about celebrity practices and relationships across various media. In other words, when celebrities take positions, they are acting selectively, and they are reflecting and refracting what some segment of the population already wants to see done in some humanitarian setting. Mia Farrow, for example, may have used the mass-mediated coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an image event that would allow her to garner attention for the plight ← 2 | 3 → of Darfurian children who were in need of foreign aid, but critics wondered whether her particular performances put the spotlight on the real needs of those children or on desires of “the activists.”11

Scholars who adopt various materialist, postcolonial, poststructural, or related “critical” ways of viewing celebrities and rhetorical flows of influence suggest that in our future studies of gossip websites, fan websites, blogs, and other mediated places we need to think about the concept of “celebrity” in much broader ways. If we care about both descriptive critique and prescriptive analyses, then why not consider a celebrity to be an “organic and every-changing performative practice rather than a set of intrinsic personal characteristics or external labels”?12 In other words, the term “celebrity” becomes a thick condensation symbol that represents contentious clusters of objects, ideas, and relationships having to do with celebrity auras.

Marwick and boyd note that celebrities are more than just individuals who are genetically born with some X factor—they are parts of sets of “circulated strategies and practices,” which can include semiotic systems, states of being, historical processes of celebritization, and commodified products of mass-culture industries.13 As Graeme Turner explains, a celebrity can be thought of as a “genre of representation” and also a “discursive effect,” which makes them commodities that are traded by participants in networks of promotion, publicity, and media industries.14 Celebrities, in other words, can be parts of empowered dispositifs.

This type of theorizing about celebrities is gaining international traction as critical scholars from various disciplines become cognizant of the growing power of celebrity advocates. An increasing number of researchers, using a diverse set of methods and case studies, cannot help noticing that celebrities, or their supporters, often magnify the social agency of celebrities, especially in situations where their neoliberal “fairy tales” are populated with recognizable, hapless foreign victims, villains who were blamed for bringing on the disasters, and the saviors (often celebrities and those supporters) whose interests are depicted as coinciding with those of the victims.15

The allure of celebrity diplomacy is so strong that we often accept their militarized or securitized frames of reference as we debate about the efficacy of this or that particular humanitarian intervention.

This poses a host of challenges for critical scholars in the social sciences and in the humanities who now are admonished to keep their eye on the intended and unintended consequences that come from the adoption of particular types of philanthrocapitalism. Scholars who adopt the networking, ← 3 | 4 → rhetorical-flow approach to celebrity power need to understand that a disconnect may sometimes exist between the perceived influence of celebrity intervention and the actual impact of their adventurism, and this will bother those who are adamant that traditional efforts on the parts of diplomats, the UN, or other orthodox organizations have failed.

There will also be times when academic outlets or mainstream media will put on display the alleged short-term impact of celebrity humanitarianism. These detractors may grudgingly admit that some money has been spent on a worthy cause, or they may recognize the fact that a number of lives may have been saved through the celebrity funding of antiretrovirals for HIV/AIDS,16 but they will then argue that other social agents, including government personnel, were the responsible parties who should have been accountable for providing this money or drugs. In other words, while many celebrity appeals are based on reductionist and linear ways of thinking about the assessment of the impact of celebrity humanitarianism, critics often try to explain some of the historic, economic, political, legal, or social complexities that are left out when celebrities and their supporters try to take credit for improvements during overseas adventurism. In some cases, celebrity advocates focus on good deeds and pure motives, while their critics contend that it may take years before we see the intended and unintended consequences of these efforts.

Given the fact that many social scientists and more than a few humanists are often divided on the question of whether most celebrity advocacy helps or hurts humanitarian efforts, from the very outset I want to critically reflect on the phenomenon, and I want to admit that I join the ranks of those who approach all of this celebrity philanthropy with a hermeneutics of suspicion. As I will argue later, if celebrities really were self-less “celebrity diplomats” that are supposedly working in altruistic ways,17 then why cannot they donate their money to indigenous activists overseas? And why don’t they avoid the glare of that public spotlight in the same way that they dodge the paparazzi?18

This may seem naïve, given human nature and the argument that can be made that it is the very aura, and the very mysticism, of celebrity status that is sought by those who want them to become immersed in celebrity humanitarian efforts. Yet as many of the cases in this book will demonstrate, celebrities, and their supporters, often have a difficult time explaining how they can prove that this involvement made a difference in the lives of the many they said they helped. Celebrities tend to masquerade as knowledgeable experts who know about political economy or foreign diplomacy, and their defenders ← 4 | 5 → tend to ignore or marginalize the humanitarian labor that indigenous communities overseas expend. In other words, celebrities refuse to give up the glare of the public spotlight, and their involvement in philanthropy oftentimes looks much like the efforts of large corporations that have phalanxes of employees writing and talking about their “social responsibility.”

Throughout this book I will also be arguing that in most philanthropic situations celebrities and their defenders often exaggerate the amount of consciousness-raising that is needed for efficacious foreign interventionism. Whether we are talking about the provision of malaria mosquito nets or the building of Ebola centers in West Africa, celebrities tend to be looking for those “emergency” problems that are high-profile image events. What they rarely discuss in these situations—and something that critical scholars need to emphasize—is that diplomats, governmental officials, and NGOs need to handle many of these problems because they are the ones who know much more about the specific humanitarian problems and solutions. Wealthy nations, who should be promoting and funding what doctors and others call “human security” rights, should not get off the hook by relying on celebrity philanthropy.

This is why it will not suffice to have critical scholars pay attention only to the reported motives of celebrities or the amount of media coverage they receive when they hear announcements regarding a celebrity’s sponsorship of a cause. That should be the beginning, not the end, of our inquiry as we work to recontextualize these ideological situations.

I am still amazed by some of the claims that some celebrities, and their public advocates, are willing to make regarding the alleged impact of their philanthropic efforts. Western corporations, military personnel, journalists, economists, and others who support these celebrities often use the celebrities for the promotion of their own neoliberal agendas, and they are not shy when it comes to making claims. Bob Geldof, for example, in his 1986 book Is That It? tried to create the impression that he had a major say in the ways that food aid was distributed in Ethiopia after selling Band Aid records and holding Live Aid concerts.19 Michael Barker has opined that Geldof knew little about the actual diplomatic or military planning of Ethiopian government personnel, and this celebrity did not have control over what happened to the food that ended up in the hands of rebels’ Relief Society of Tigray.20 Barker acknowledged that Geldof had good intentions when he first set out in 1984 to help those in Ethiopia, but then Barker went on to explain that Geldof “explicitly set upon this task in a manner that ignored any systematic critique of the politics of exploitation.” Geldof’s actions, argued Barker, ← 5 | 6 → ended up “bolstering the very same unjust capitalistic system that created the problem in the first place.”21 Barker went further than most of Geldof’s detractors when he called this “imperialism-lite,” but others would perhaps agree with Barker’s assessment that Geldof’s rhetoric reflected a particular type of human rights ideology that helped with the “institutionalization of neoliberalism.”22

For those who share Barker’s sentiments, all of the celebrity focus on aesthetics, glamour, and glitz allows Western publics to believe that their beloved stars are informed celebrity diplomats pushing for constructive change overseas, when in fact they often do very little to question the very powerful dispositifs that suture together many -isms—capitalism, liberalism, militarism, imperialism, and Westphalian notions of governmentalities—because the established relationships and apparatus only hurt impoverished communities.

Yet Geldof’s defenders could argue that all of this abstract talk of “critical” ideology does little to help feed those who are starving overseas. At a time when we are all witnessing the growing economic gaps between the rich and the poor, North and South, the West and the rest, traditional developmental programs and the established charity organizations find themselves constantly having to deal with what Paul Collier has called “development biz” and “development buzz.”23 Development biz refers to the ways that privatization has supposedly helped turn charity work into a thriving business, while development buzz refers to the star power that comes when rock stars and other celebrities join particular causes. George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Brad Pitt, Bono, and Oprah Winfrey are just some of the thousands of celebrities who have joined humanitarian causes.

In this book, I argue that we have now reached a precarious stage in the formative evolution of celebrity humanitarian rhetorics. As literally thousands of celebrities adopt the “Band Aid” template for “emergency” relief in countless, but strategic, contexts, a few victims of natural or humanly produced disasters do indeed profit from needed relief, but this neoliberal trend hinders the efforts of those seeking infrastructural change overseas. We need to return to some of the post–Cold War discourses that treated humanitarian aid as a type of human right, instead of commodifying it in ways where reception depends on the gazes of privileged celebrity supporters.

Each of my chapters will evidence, in different ways, what happens when empowered communities use celebrities and their auras to valorize aid privatization or the militarization of humanitarian problems. It is no coincidence ← 6 | 7 → that we find celebrities like Angelina Jolie advocating U.S. intervention in Uganda or George Clooney wanting the aggressive prevention of genocide in Darfur. By providing a comparative, critical study of the synchronic and diachronic features of several instances of this “post-humanitarian” rhetoric24 I want to illustrate the repetitive nature, and the allure, of these neoliberal discourses and visualities. I won’t hesitate to argue that I think that all of this threatens to undermine any chance that cosmopolitans have of recuperating the older discourses of “development” that nations who went through decolonization needed.

Rather than simply bemoaning the nonefficacious or complaining about the sentimental nature of some of this celebrity advocacy, we need to find constructive ways of harnessing these same energies and channeling all of this neoliberal celebrity rhetoric. I realize that there are some readers who will contend that we can never use the “master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house,” but we need to face the reality that the millennial and other generations are totally supportive of celebrity “chic.” This discourse will not be easily dismantled, so why not simultaneously work on trying to craft alternative discourses that can harness all of this energy?

Let me continue my analysis in this introductory chapter by providing readers with a brief critical genealogical discussion of celebrity dispositifs. I will then provide a literature review that explains how previous researchers have written about celebrity advocacy. Next I address some key questions. Finally, I will outline the trajectory of the rest of the book’s chapters.

A Short Historical Primer on Celebrity Advocacy

With the benefit of hindsight it could be argued that, over the years, many Hollywood luminaries and other celebrities have engaged in all types of social crusades, and contemporary generations often forget that even before Audrey Hepburn became a UNICEF ambassador, there were earlier generations of actors and actresses involved with charity work. For example, during the era of the Pickfair estate, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford supported the Red Cross, and Pickford’s work with orphanages has been inextricably linked to her own stardom.25

Contemporary academic remembrances of celebrity advocacy usually note that it was American actor Danny Kaye who became the first ambassador for UNICEF in 1954.26 Decades later, Ravi Shankar and George Harrison organized ← 7 | 8 → a 1971 concert so that rock stars could help raise money for UNICEF relief for the victims of the war in Pakistan.

Different generations of celebrities have shown a continued interest in various social crusades, but the notion of what it means to be performatively involved in humanitarian efforts or transglobal development planning has changed dramatically over the years. We can trace some of the genealogical origins of modernist notions of philanthropy27 back to the post–World War II Marshall Plan and the founding of the Bretton Woods institutions, but the characterization of particular agents of change, and the nature and scope of humanitarian projects have often been altered to fit the ideological needs of the givers.

In the aftermath of the decolonization period, the dispositifs crafted during this period reflected much of the ambivalence, and the tensions, created by those who wished to critique the power of imperialism, while at the same time they heralded the fight for independence from European empires. During the decolonization periods, about thirty-eight bilateral and multilateral donors annually disbursed an average of $43 billion worth of assistance, and today there are hundreds of development projects that annually distribute almost $160 billion to many different countries. “The fight against poverty,” argue Lael Brainard and Vinca LaFleur, “which was once exclusively restricted to aid officials and learned experts, has become one of the twenty-first century’s most popular causes.”28

Julie Wilson has persuasively argued that it was Audrey Hepburn, back on the public stage in 1988, who became the archetypal example of the modern celebrity with more than a passing interest in humanitarian causes. Hepburn’s work with the UN Children’s Fund set trends, and she epitomized “a new kind of star” that also ushered in a “new modality of star power.”29 She used her celebrity status and openly put on public display the plight of the world’s children, and Hepburn made frequent visits to popular talk shows at the same time that she testified before U.S. congressional committees about UN activities. In other words, she was establishing a public persona that distanced her from other stars who may not have been that involved with this type of charity work.

This type of performative stardom was rewarded in 2002 when a “Spirit of Audrey Hepburn” statue was unveiled at UNICEF headquarters in New York. Harry Belafonte—who was also considered to be an outstanding ambassador in his own right—opined that Hepburn was “one of the great women of the 20th century.”30 Celebrity advocates were now just beginning ← 8 | 9 → to get the prestige, the power, and the adulation that used to be reserved for world leaders who led revolutions and military generals who fought major battles.

One of the most famous examples of the potential rhetorical power of celebrity advocacy came in 1984 when Geldof enlisted fellow musician Midge Ure to think about planning what would be called Band Aid. As the story goes, they heard a BBC report by Michael Buerk that covered the devastation caused by flooding in Korem, Ethiopia. Buerk’s report became even more compelling when it was paired with the camerawork of Mohammed Amin, and this visuality was carried by hundreds of broadcasting organizations around the globe to the point where it reached 470 million viewers.31 Within a relatively short period of time, Geldof and his fans and supporters were able to gather together other celebrity musicians, who produced the Band Aid record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

From a critical vantage point, Band Aid’s mass-mediated characterization of this Ethiopian problem as a single “famine” helped configure the African landscape as a desolate place filled with impoverished denizens who needed help during the Judeo-Christian holidays. Live Aid would eventually follow, many other countries were the sites for similar events, and musicians helped raise $150 million for famine-relief efforts in Ethiopia. Observers noted that this was a sum higher than all of the previous celebrity causes combined,32 and supporters and critics of celebrity activism still debate about the actual impact of these pioneering efforts. Regardless of our visceral responses to these efforts, from a perspectival standpoint, Band Aid has to be remembered as a major media event.

During the late 1990s, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, ramped up efforts to get celebrities involved in more UN projects, and almost a hundred celebrities were placed on the list of official UN goodwill ambassadors or UN messengers of peace. These individuals were supposed to help keep the world’s focus on the noble aspirations of the UN, and they were also supposed to be working toward demilitarization as they advocated respect for human rights, talked about economic and social progress, or mentioned the importance of obeying international humanitarian law. Some of the celebrities who were added to Annan’s lists included Muhammad Ali, Viijay Armritraj, Anna Cataldi, Michael Douglas, Jane Goodall, Enrico Macias, Wynton Marsalis, and Elie Wiesel. Mark Alleyne has argued that “Annan’s penchant for favoring U.S. and European celebrities to be his propagandists can be viewed not only as a means of currying favor in the richest, most powerful parts of the world,” ← 9 | 10 → but “also as a strategy of going to the parts of the world where it is easiest to find those who buy into the notion of universality.”33 Here there would be no postcolonial talk of Western hegemony, no lingering over the problematics of decolonization or African underdevelopment. At least, during this period of time, one would be hard pressed to find any celebrity commentary on Western neocolonial aspirations.


VI, 280
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Bono George Clooney Madonna Greg Mortenson Kim Kardashian West Celebrity Activities Local NGO's Rhetoric of celebrity
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VI, 280 pp.

Biographical notes

Marouf A. Hasian (Author)

Marouf A. Hasian, Jr. (PhD, University of Georgia) is Professor of Communication at the University of Utah. He is the author of 11 books including In the Name of Necessity: Military Tribunals and the Loss of American Civil Liberties (2005) and Colonial Legacies in Postcolonial Contexts: A Critical Rhetorical Examination of Legal Histories (Peter Lang, 2002).


Title: Humanitarian Aid and the Impoverished Rhetoric of Celebrity Advocacy