Aidex Voices

As another night of Comic Relief airs, AidEx spoke with Lisa Ann Richey and Dan Brockington - two prominent voices in the field of research exploring the relationship between global values and the practice of humanitarianism, about the cause and effect of corporate and celebrity endorsement of charity campaigns, and importantly how we can deliver more effective aid.

From climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to taking selfies with five-year-old Ugandans, this time of year witnesses a spike of celebrities in the charity spotlight and big brands selling products to fundraise for good causes.

Pitched as, ‘a night of comedy and entertainment to inspire the nation to give generously’, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day and Sport Relief telethons have become known as prominent events in British pop culture, using celebrities and merchandise as a central means of fundraising.

The UK charity’s mission is to ‘drive positive change through the power of entertainment’, but to what extent can famous faces and plastic red noses really make a difference? First, we look at celebrity advocates.

The celebrity illusion

In a recent dispute triggered by British MP David Lammy in response to images posted on social media by documentary-maker Stacey Dooley with Mwesigwa Waiswa whilst filming for Comic Relief, Lammy condemned the way the charity raises money with celebrities. He said:

"My problem with British celebrities being flown out by Comic Relief to make these films is that it sends a distorted image of Africa which perpetuates an old idea from the colonial era.

"I want African people to speak for themselves, not UK celebs acting as tour guides."

Online campaign group No White Saviors responded to the incident by highlighting how good intentions simply are not good enough anymore. They suggest the problem is one of power and privilege dynamics, which correlates with Richey’s view that celebrity humanitarianism is a way of doing humanitarian politics as usual: “celebrity humanitarianism privileges special interests and corporate lobbyists,” she says.

In the last 15 years, 75% of the largest NGOs have set up celebrity liaison programmes in what Brockington describes as a quiet revolution. His research found that in the UK, contrary to popular opinion, celebrity is a minority bespoke interest. In fact, it is precisely this false impression that celebrities appeal to everyone, which wields their influence-power. Through conducting interviews with over 120 elites, Brockington discovered elites’ high interest in celebrities, as they believed engaging with “popular” figures would generate their own publicity.

Celebrity advocacy offers the appearance of participation and consequently serves as a proxy for public engagement. Popular support Brockington says, is not necessary for celebrity advocacy to thrive because “celebrities will save the world, or at least shape it in powerful ways, even if we ignore them”. Take for instance Bono’s influence on George W. Bush which led to the creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in 2003 which designated $60 million – the largest financial commitment of any country to combat a single infectious disease.

This is why the spat between MP Lammy with celebrity Dooley is interesting – by turning the table on celebrities it stirs the public to ask more questions, rather than continuing to be distracted by their caring nature which will supposedly perform magical solutions to intractable global crises. It also reiterates the powerful exchange between elites and celebrities regarding charity advocacy, by showing how the political elite believe celebrities can be used as an example for their own interests.

The commodification of compassion

The rise of celebrity in NGOs according to Brockington, is driven by corporate demand for them. He says companies like associations with celebrity because they offer (free) favourable publicity for their products, helping to boost their brand through links and associations with the charities’ ambassadors.

Richey has conducted extensive research into the implications of turning people and humanitarian causes into marketable things and labels Red Nose Day as symbolic of ‘brand aid’ – where companies lure in well-meaning consumers to purchase their products associated with charitable causes, in an exchange of “low-cost heroism”.

The issue with buying a product like a RED iPhone that donates a small percentage of the profits to support The Global Fund for instance, Richey says, is it sucks consumers into believing that choice makes them a hero, saves Africans and is a form of ethical activism, when in reality:

“It is a luxury consumption purchase that is being marketed to you in a way that threatens to distract you from thinking about other important factors like, do I really need a new iPhone now? What are the labour conditions at FoxConn in China where they are assembled?”

Despite buying such products with good intentions, by consuming things we don’t need within a context of a global over-consumption crisis, we are indirectly perpetuating inequality. The illusive oversimplification of solutions to poverty and world-hunger through product-consumption alone is harmful as it reduces meaningful engagement in issues. An article on the matter states:

“The Red Nose Day campaign is emblematic of a prevalent yet incredibly problematic approach to philanthropy and humanitarianism: If we consume junk with no discernible use, we’ll help others we’ll never see while we continue to enjoy, and not question, our own privilege.”

Conscientious consumption is key

The primary cause of passive engagement in global development according to Richey, is the lack of worthwhile investment in it. She says if there was more of an ethical obligation for countries whose economies were built through the exploitation of others, there would be no need for brand aid.

“I think that governments, democratically elected and accountable, are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the protection of its citizens whether they are producers, consumers or charity beneficiaries—or all of the above,” Richey states.

Brockington’s argument is that NGOs should harness and work with celebrities effectively because so long as the decision-makers are benevolent, celebrities can be used as effective wielders of charitable interests.

Celebrities and consumer goods are evidently powerful means of fundraising, but the question lies in whether you believe the means justifies the ends. More importantly, how do we encourage people to not let famous faces dazzle and obscure the deeper questions beyond how much money is raised to further ask, where is the money coming from? How is it being spent? Practical, sustainable solutions to the world’s problems require more public engagement than ‘a night of entertainment’.

Lisa Ann Richey is the Professor of Globalisation at the Copenhagen Business School and Dan Brockington is the Director for the Sheffield Institute of International Development.