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The glamorous double standards of celebrity humanitarianism

The glamorous double standards of celebrity humanitarianism

No experience needed – Apply within.

Development is a strange field in that virtually any John, Dick or Mary can do it. This isn’t to suggest that such work is a walk in the park, far from it. Yet, a culture has emerged in which nearly anybody can be actively involved, regardless of experience, knowledge of poverty or even maturity level. This has enabled a booming voluntourism trade, a global movement of slacktivists and, (my personal favourite) a trend of celebrity humanitarianism. In fact, the only real “skill” you need to do humanitarian work is wealth (it also helps if you’re white), making celebrities some of the most skilled professionals in the business.

Our obsession with celebrity culture means those involved in aid work often provide the public with a window into the world of development. Yet, this window offers an extremely distorted view, in which poverty can be easily addressed by the mere presence of a celebrity. In this way, celebrities individually shoulder the burdens of development whilst the efforts of others, such as local doctors and human rights lawyers, are masked.

Worse still, the commitments of many celebrity humanitarians are part-time at best, and the gospel they preach is rife with double-standards.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Many celebrities view charity as something that can be taken lightly alongside other leisure activities, outlandish materialism, lucrative business deals and reality television. Take Kim Kardashian, who feels that visits to children at rehabilitation centres in Botswana are compatible with $750,000 Lamborghini birthday presents. Of course, Kim is an easy target, but even the more “sophisticated” humanitarians are fraught with contradictions. Whilst Angelina Jolie is renowned for her work as a humanitarian, some of her personal choices seem at odds with her pro-peoples stance. It’s strange that an anti-poverty campaigner is happy to spend $23,000 on facials, and is also opposed to a tax on the wealthy that’s intended to support the National Health Service.

But when it comes to flagrant hypocrisy, Scarlett Johansson really takes the biscuit. Followed by entire packet. Earlier this year, Johansson became embroiled in a scandal after joining forces with Israeli soft drink maker SodaStream, which controversially operated a factory in occupied Palestinian territory (though this is now due to close). This alliance was in direct conflict with her 7-year position a global ambassador for Oxfam, which opposes all trade with the occupied territories. Amazingly, Johansson refused to admit any wrongdoing, and instead ended her relationship with the organisation in favour of delicious bubbles; not to mention the delicious money to be made from the Super Bowl half-time show, which featured her SodaStream promo.

In her response to the public backlash that followed, Johansson insisted that she “never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance.” This illustrated her failure to grasp the fact that poverty is not a natural occurrence, but a fundamentally political phenomenon. Moreover, it highlighted an unwillingness to seriously commit to social change and a decision to instead adopt a cynical soft approach. The lack of conviction of many such celebrity endeavours is beautifully illustrated by Johansson, who made clear that, when push came to shove, profit came before people.

People don’t save people, rappers do.

Aside from the dubious commitments to development, celebrity humanitarianism is particularly problematic because of the messages it conveys about the players in developmental processes. In conflict zones such as Darfur (and any humanitarian situation), a myriad of local actors, such as doctors, human rights lawyers, grassroots activists and journalists, are doing the real work. Yet, these key figures are often displaced by crusading celebrities, who dominate the scene whilst everybody else takes a backseat. In doing so, development becomes very much an individualistic affair. In fact, many celebrities go one step further by personalising the whole experience. In many cases, the focus hones in on how a tearful celebrity is dealing with a crisis, whilst those affected by it disappear into background noise. In this clip, a young child who has escaped trafficking actually has to comfort a sobbing Lindsay Lohan. Priceless.

Bob Geldof infamously exemplified similar self-absorption when he hijacked the Make Poverty History Campaign in 2005. Originally, the campaign was meant to be a coalition of hundreds of NGOs from around the globe raising awareness on important issues of poverty. But instead it turned into a one-man band as the campaign became synonymous with Band Aid and the struggle of Saint Bob. What could have been an effective campaign was instead reduced to another song of “Powerful Giver” and “Grateful Receiver.” Band Aid: a broken record since 1984.

Goodwill hunting

Despite their shortcomings, celebrity ambassadors are an extremely popular tool for international NGOs, now as concerned with branding as the private sector. This is understandable, as such high-profile figures are excellent for garnering publicity and attracting funding. In light of Johansson’s SodaStream shambles, one wonders how organisations can choose an ambassador potentially bereft of integrity, but perhaps it boils down to style being more important than substance.

Style is certainly the order of the day for the UN Goodwill Ambassador programme, which has included the likes of Victoria Beckham for HIV/AIDS and Emma Watson for Women.   Not that I have any huge issue with the latter, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly confused that she was appointed Ambassador for Women around the same time Malala Yousafzi was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. Emotive though her speech was, human rights is certainly not Watson’s specialty, nor do I recall her taking a bullet for gender equality. Ultimately, it seems glamour trumps merit when it comes to brand ambassadors.

People may defend such celebrities, pointing out that “something is better than nothing”. However, I believe those who profess to be role models in society should be subject to scrutiny, because they often set a precedent that others follow. Those who wish to help tackle poverty must go further than field visits and photo ops – it will take engaging with the issues of poverty, challenging the policies of institutions that perpetuate it and, perhaps most importantly, reflecting on the ways lifestyle choices contribute to such issues. Let’s hope that in the future, the commitment of brand ambassadors goes deeper than the lens of camera.

Featured image shows William Hague and Angelina Jolie visiting Nzolo Camp in the DRC. Photo from the G8 U.K. Presidency.

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Tom Jarman

Consultant at Zimele UK
Tom Jarman works for Zimele UK, a small charity in Wales, and blogs about international development at

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9 thoughts on “The glamorous double standards of celebrity humanitarianism

  1. It is an interesting contradiction – as much as these celebrities may not know enough about the cause or may not have the supposed empathy, they are the epicentres for fundraising from the masses – is that now ? We would love to learn more.

  2. Jennifer Ambrose

    Hi Lyrian – Thanks for pointing out that almost any aid worker would be guilty of similar double standards. I completely agree, and that’s something I thought a lot about while living abroad and even now that I’m back in the U.S. Some level of double standard is inevitable. But is there a limit to what’s reasonable? This issue actually came up on the newest episode of the MissionCreep podcast, in case you’re interested in checking it out:

  3. Eria Kakuma.

    I am a Deaf adult based in Iganga, Uganda and am heading an association for the Deaf in the place. Am currently looking for some Donors who might have interest in this special group(The Deaf) so we may be in position to solicit funds that may enhance some of the projects we’r working on to raise the standard of living of the Deaf counterparts in this area. Thank you.

  4. […] article originally appeared on WhyDev and has been reposted with […]

  5. Lyrian

    I would worry indeed if % of income tests were put to aid and development workers themselves and the seemingly lavish lifestyles they lead (or are perceived to lead!). Comparing how much someone like Jolie donates from her income and pitting that against her facial costs is a fairer test, surely?

    I am very cautious around throwing criticism and blame in this way. Very few people live a life that can’t be heavily criticised for the way spending decisions are made, income is earned, leisure time is spent etc.

    And blaming people for not understanding complexity is perhaps a problem the industry should be addressing itself, rather than blaming those we approach to help raise awareness, for not ‘getting it’.

    I’m not saying big celebs shouldn’t be scrutinised, but I don’t think this article achieved that in a fair, balanced or constructive way.

  6. joseph estrada

    Great topic, and I agree with most of the points made. However, the author comes off as petty and bitter rather than genuinely concerned.

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