All posts by Jennifer Foth

Jennifer Foth completed her undergraduate studies at Middlebury College, majoring in International Studies with a focus in Political Science. After graduation, Jennifer worked for two years at ACCION International, a Boston-based microfinance non-profit organization, where she oversaw the development of the senior management monthly report and partner-wide social performance indicators. Jennifer received her Masters in Public Health in International and Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health in September 2012. She recently returned from Ethiopia where, as part of her required Masters practicum, she completed a child needs assessment for Betasab, an organization that provides housing, education, and health care services to OVCs in Addis Ababa. As a 2012-13 Global Health Corps Fellow, Jennifer is currently working as Health Sector Quality Improvement Coordinator for Millennium Villages Project in Zomba, Malawi.

Much ado about Madonna

Media outlets in Malawi and around the world have been abuzz with the “scandal” surrounding pop star Madonna’s recent visit to the country to tour the ten schools (or classrooms, depending on who you ask) her charity, Raising Malawi, has built over the past couple of years.

The “scandal” erupted after Madonna sent President Joyce Banda an informal, handwritten note requesting to meet with the President and then later complained to the press about having to check-in on departure from Kamuzu International Airport like a normal person. Malawian State House officials responded with a formal public statement denouncing Madonna’s charity, character, and musical talent. This on top of previous accusations of mismanagement by the President’s sister, Anjimile Oponyo, who was hired to head the now-defunct Raising Malawi Academy for Girls.

If only Celebrity Deathmatch still around so they could settle this once and for all. (“Development Deathmatch” spin-off, anyone??)

Though President Banda was “incandescent with anger” at the release of the statement which she claims she did not authorize, this incident is just the latest development in the much larger backlash against celebrity involvement in humanitarian aid and development – from George Clooney in Sudan, to Ben Affleck in the DRC, to Bono everywhere.

In its public statement, State House officials noted that “among the many things that Madonna needs to learn…is the decency of telling the truth…[not] that she is building schools in Malawi when she has actually only contributed to the construction of classrooms.”

The officials also criticized Madonna’s expectation for “Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude”, simply because she has adopted two children from Malawi. Eunice Kazembe, the Malawi Minister of Education, leveled her own criticism at the pop star, saying that, while her country is grateful for the assistance, an individual should not “go to some remote part of Malawi and start doing whatever… She promised an academy and we agreed on standards but she just changed her mind on the project without consulting us.”

Malawian officials, Ms. Kazembe, and the numerous other critics of celebrities without borders, have a valid point. While celebrity involvement has the potential to increase the visibility, and thereby deepen the pockets, of charities and their causes, transparency, accountability, and the White-Savior Industrial Complex are certainly issues of concern when it comes to celebrity involvement in development and humanitarian aid. But these same issues also arise with the work of larger charitable groups and NGOs.

Why is it, then, that so much attention and criticism is heaped on individual celebrities? Why do we not routinely take larger organizations with bigger budgets and wider reach to task on these issues? Here are some possible explanations:

Tabloid media: We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture in which actors, musicians, and reality-TV stars are subjected to extreme levels of public scrutiny, thanks to the multimillion dollar celebrity and gossip magazine market, which profits off of paparazzi photos and wild speculation. This is not, however, a culture of “hero worship.” Rather, it is a culture in which celebrities are “marketed, sold, and disseminated with… rapidity and cunning… and then just as quickly cast aside.”

Celebrities have become as disposable as the magazines that cover them. Publishers and readers seize on any opportunity to criticize these celebrities for their bodies, their relationships, or their charitable work – to cut them down and make room for the next batch.

PR stunts: Many of us assume that celebrities get involved with charitable causes for purely public relations purposes, as a way to boost their public image or “diversify their portfolio,” as it were. (Actor and activist!) We are inherently suspicious of their motives and, often, their understanding of the issues, whether it’s genocide in Darfur or education in Malawi.

Putting a face to the name: It’s just easier to blame or criticize an individual than an entire organization. With so many moving parts to an NGO (operations, development, communications, etc.), it can be difficult to find a single person or department on whom to lay the blame for failed programs. Celebrity activists put a “face” to the problem –a blessing for raising awareness and funds, but a potential curse when the project fails to deliver.

Whatever the reason(s), we’d do well to cast the same critical eye and draw the same attention to the actions of all actors in the aid and development sectors, not just those with a pretty face. Celebrities, and the causes they advocate for, come and go. But the organizations working on these important issues have been doing so for years. They have greater capacity, greater funding, broader reach, and thus the potential for greater long-term impact. We need to make sure that they are getting it right.

How we do that, well, that’s a post for another day….

Do you think celebrity philanthropy is over-scrutinized? Leave a comment below.