Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is celebrity activism useful?

Today, Jennifer Anniston and Courtney Cox announced that they were going to campaign for Congolese women by urging electronics companies in the United States not to buy "conflict minerals" from the Congo. Ben Affleck, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, Joel Madden, Javier Bardem, Dayle Haddon, Emile Hirsch and Mia Farrow have also pitched in to raise awareness.

There is no doubt that their work has made tens of thousands of people around the world aware of the suffering in the Congo. Even the academics say so - a 2005 article in the Harvard International Journal on Press/Politics showed that teenagers change their opinion about key issues in response to celebrity endorsements (apparently Avril Lavigne had much more influence than Alanis Morrisette).

For years many of us have lamented the fact that the Congo receives scant attention - if only more people would care, we argued. So isn't this manna from heaven?

Yes and no. More attention is good only so long is it is channeled in the right direction. This is not always easy. Here are some points for reflection:

1. I don't think any of us wants Jennifer Anniston in charge of Congo policy. The conflict is complex and hard to fathom, people who spend their lives studying often disagree with each other. Just think of the current debate about conflict minerals in the Congo. Respected, world-class organizations often have different opinions - researchers from the London School of Economics recommend no sanctions but greater transparency and security sector reform; Global Witness is pushing for making companies accountable through policing and due diligence; and ENOUGH is aiming for certification of minerals (Anniston supports this). These options are no necessarily incompatible, but there are tensions. In the past, there have been even more serious divergences in opinion - I remember when, during the war, some pundits were arguing for the Congo to be split into separate countries, an option many others argued vehemently against.

2. We can get carried away with sentimentality. Guilt over inaction during the Rwandan genocide tainted diplomats' behavior towards the Congo, creating a whole new array of problems. Mahmood Mamdani has argued that colonialism has often masqueraded as humanitarianism, comparing Iraq with Darfur. In particular, he argues that the Save Darfur Coalition has distorted the facts, jeopardized the North-South peace deal and prevented local peacemaking efforts.

The obsession with violence can lead us to the wrong conclusion. There is a certain amount of voyeuristic fetishism in some of the depictions of the violence, each journalist trying to outdo the next with extreme stories of gore. While sometimes this serves to shock us into action, at other times this can also numb foreign audiences, reinforcing their stereotypes that these are irrational events carried out by savages. As one author (more cynical than myself) commented, "The horrendous Holocaust-mongering in the Congo blinds people to the political dynamics behind the recent conflicts – and in particular to the role of the ‘international community’ in deepening tensions in the region and inflaming conflict."

3. Whatever you may think of Mamdani's argument, catering to sensationalistic press can cause perverse incentives, tempting advocates to inflate the brutality and atrocity figures to capture the media's attention. I have seen many journalists showing up in eastern Congo, re-enacting a version of the scene from Kisangani in 1964, when British foreign correspondent Edward Behr shouted out to a ragged bunch of rescued European settlers: "Anybody here raped and speak English?"

Some of the activism I have seen in the United States mimics this - people who are more concerned getting their name in the spotlight than actually doing good. Some publicists tell their celebrity clients that getting on the charity bandwagon is good for their career, although I am sure many also get involved for altruistic reasons.

4. Policy-makers listen to voters and ideas, not celebrities. In fact, in some cases policy-makers are turned off when you show up at their door with a celebrity, they don't take you seriously any more. Of course, voters often listen to celebrities and not to policy wonks (as the Harvard journal cited above points out), so this is an ambiguous issue. But many humanitarian officials have told me that they feel uneasy about this kind of activism - a Brittney Spears could tarnish Oxfam's image more than boost it with its core supporters. The people who tend to get committed, call their congressmen and pull out their checkbooks are often not swayed by celebrities (the teenagers who often don't have hefty checkbooks and can't vote).

5. Superficial depictions lead to superficial solutions. Yes, there has been increased attention on the Congo crisis in past years, in particular because of the epidemic of sexual violence. But with little effect until now. Congress passed a resolution condemned sexual violence, Hillary Clinton pledged $17 million dollars to help survivors of rape, and Senators Brownback, Feingold and Durbin have proposed legislation to make companies carry out due diligence of their mineral supply chain. However, mere resolutions don't change the situation on the ground, $17 million in peanuts compared to the $4 billion in donor aid to the Congo each year and the senator's bill does not give an indication of what this due diligence would look like and how we should achieve it. There is a strong case to be made that these are all just first steps on the way to real progress. Let's keep stepping then.

At the end of the day, we just don't know whether celebrities are useful or not, we don't have enough evidence one way or the other. For now, however, the most common-sensical approach is to make sure that, if at all, they are called upon to help raise awareness about specific policy initiatives that are the result of thorough and rigorous debate and that should empower the recipients rather than making them the object of blind pity. Intervention, as we have learned painfully in the past, can do more harm than good.


Unknown said...

I guess I am more annoyed when celebrities come for repeat "fact finding" field trips to the world's hottest disaster zones, diverting most if not all NGO and UN resources, human and transport, for the duration of their stay. This may seem like nothing but it directly precludes normal operations being carried out. I see no utility to these trips other than the photo ops for the people involved. I'll read the Harvard Intl Jrnl article you cite to see if this particular issue is looked at.

Jason Stearns said...

I agree.

The Harvard article is just a study of whether celebrity endorsements change people's attitudes about certain issues - they look at the impact Wayne Gretzky, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne have on a bunch of 20-year-old Canadians.

MJPC BLOG said...

The $17 million dollars pledged by Hillary Clinton to help survivors of rape in Congo will go directly in the pockets of the perpetrators. It is not a secret to anyone that the Congolese government keeps perpetrators like Bosco Ntaganda on its payroll despite being wanted by the ICC. Another irony you don't hear people talk about is the fact that the Congolese government has never allocated budget for half a million victims of sexual violence in Congo.

Clay said...

I'm late to this, but you traduce the late Edward Behr. He did not shout that out that infamous remark. He HEARD it being said.

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