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Downton Abbey goes to Africa

Downton Abbey goes to Africa

Ed Carr and his colleagues recently wrote “a serious history” of celebrities, activism and humanitarianism. It is seriously good. Then, Telegraph reporter Jake Wallis Simons (two-thirds of a great law firm name), wrote a profile piece on Elizabeth McGovern (aka Lady Cora of Downton Abbey). It is perhaps the single greatest piece of journalism about celebrity, humanitarianism and Africa you will ever read. It is already receiving rave reviews from those such as Ed, who calls it,”the most insane, boggling thing I have ever read on celebrity aid in Africa.”

What follows are some highlights (Spoiler alerts). This piece requires and deserves multiple readings.

  • Sierra Leone is “in every conceivable sense a long way from Downton”. And we begin!
  • McGovern was engaged to Sean Penn at the age of 23. She hates Woody Allen.
  • She is in a band, called ‘Sadie and the Hotheads’. Apparently, the band is sponsored by World Vision!?! “World Vision has paid her band £28,000 to fund the recording of their latest album and a UK tour, in return for which they have agreed to promote the charity.” And down the rabbit hole we go!


  • When the flight stopped en route to Sierra Leone, it refuelled in Dakar, Senegal. McGovern thought they were in Darfur, Sudan. Miss it by that much!
  • Simons claims that “World Vision is the biggest charity you’ve never heard of”. So, by that logic, you’ve probably never heard of ANY charities.
  • McGovern didn’t realise World Vision was a Christian organisation. According to Simons, “charity representatives failed to make their Christianity clear to her”. But, she chose not to pull out because “on balance, it is an organisation that does a lot of good for many people”. (And, paid her band  £28,000. See above).
  • McGovern is suitably impressed with Freetown. ‘”Their food must be so healthy,” says McGovern. “You don’t see all those crap chains and stuff. But I guess that will change as the country gets more modern. It’s like a holiday. I feel a bit guilty.”‘
  • Brad Pitt. They stay in the same hotel as Brad Pitt. McGovern starred alongside Pitt in The Favour (1994). (The film received reviews such as this: “I remember seeing this when first released, and I remember not liking it, but I no longer remember the film at all”). She casually remarks that she slept with Pitt once (on-camera) and that he doesn’t have sex appeal. Are you not entertained?


  • World Vision paid for McGovern’s trip. McGovern was under the impression that World Vision doesn’t spend money on promotion. Wilson, World Vision’s PR representative for the trip corrects her. The trip wasn’t cheap. McGovern was told otherwise when pitched too. Wilson suggests that she shouldn’t say that in interviews and should instead focus on the organisation’s long-term aid.
  • Lets talk about gender and sex: “I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home”, says McGovern. Wait for it… “I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka?” Wait for it… “And that clitoris thing is awful”. Bingo.
  • Lets talk about World Vision and proselytising: Simons asks the World Vision driver of 10 years if the organisation ever tries to convert people. His response is one for the ages:

“Christianity is our goal,” he says. “In some Muslim areas they are suspicious of us. So we put our effort into setting up clinics, permanent schools, and establish a society. Gradually they see we are good people. Then we pay professional pastors to preach to them. That is our final goal.”

  • McGovern meets the girl she has been sponsoring for 1.5 years. Simons calls McGovern’s sponsorship “no great act of philanthropy”, references the fact that both the girl and McGovern are stuck in a “feedback loop of public relations”. A moment of wisdom.
  • The girl’s parents are told by the World Vision representative Wilson that McGovern is a TV star, so people listen to her.
  • McGovern gives the girl a skipping rope, bubble mixture and a bouncy ball. McGovern and her daughter (did I mention her 15-year old daughter came along?) are given fresh coconuts, matching smocks and two live chickens. Fair trade?
  • Then, suddenly, on the final day, McGovern comes out from her room. Simons describes her as looking white as a sheet. (Is there a pun buried in there somewhere?). McGovern dropped her iPhone in the toilet. It never recovered.

Get a cup of tea. Take some time to reorientate. Sit down. Take a deep breathe. In through your nose…Out through your mouth. Ok. Better? Now for your thoughts.

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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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9 thoughts on “Downton Abbey goes to Africa

  1. […] trip to Sierra Leone (who was subsequently tarred and feathered by aid commentators here and here) in December, the issue was in the public eye most recently when Oxfam and actress Scarlett […]

  2. rachels

    Seems like everyone is getting on the Angelina Jolie bandwagon a bit late…Madonna in Malawi to add to Oprah in Zambia…why are they always African countries? Because Africa epitomises poverty and is easier to sell? Also read about Scarlett Johansson’s and Oxfam’s recent ‘divorce’ over SodaStream. I think if aid organisations want celebs to endorse them for fundraising reasons, then the partnership terms need to spelt out pretty clearly. The IRC seems to do this well enough without compromising themselves. Having said that, I also think if you are going to take that amount of money you should probably be prepared to take some responsibility for the fallout. On a side note, I’ve always thought the idea of WV ‘selling’ children’s futures in the middle of a crowded mall at Christmas was a bit weird.

  3. wmyeoh

    Is it a coincidence that on the very day the article was published, World Vision put out an ad calling for a new Celebrity Media Specialist? Probably not.

  4. Wayan

    Damn… And she’s an American.

  5. […] Brendan Rigby summarises Jake Wallis Simons profile piece on Elizabeth McGovern.  […]

  6. NamKat

    Thank goodness! I read this article with a growing sense of indignation and incredulity… I HAD to do a google search straight after to check if the journo was (hopefully!) sending Elizabeth McGovern up. Thankfully, your assessment of it matches mine as a great piece examining the lengths that charities may have sometimes have to go through to get celebrity endorsements. I’m sure that not all celebrities are this ill prepared and ignorant… But wow, just wow…!

    1. Aid Worker

      It’s surely up to the charity to brief the celeb, thoroughly, in advance – both about what the charity is and stands for, as well as the situation on the ground to which the celeb going to be exposed..? No surprises in the field…

      A good read on this subject is Helen Fielding’s ‘Cause Celeb’ (Yes, the Helen Fielding who wrote Bridget Jones).

      1. NamKat


        Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll definitely take a look!

        However, it is my understanding that charities always send out information packs to potential fundraisers / celeb supporters. Furthermore, she states in the article that she was pitched to so she had ample opportunity to ask questions and be brought up to sorry on the situation in the field…

        Unfortunately, it seems she only really listened to the bit where THEY sponsored HER.

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