Thursday, 31 March 2011

I'm all for celebrity bashing, but can we at least check the facts?

Claire Provost's piece on the Guardian's Global Development blog is classic celebrity-driven-charity bashing. Which isn't a bad thing. Sometimes it's necessary, as well as entertaining. But - and here's the thing - if you're going to bash celebrities for getting it wrong in terms of aid to poor African countries, you should really, really try to get the facts right, yourself.

1. This is not a new story. Why is it that nothing that happens in Southern Africa is ever picked up until weeks later, and in the process somehow morphs into strange misunderstandings? In February, the Nyasa Times picked up a statement from the Raising Malawi foundation saying that, after careful consideration and the fact that they couldn't get the land they wanted, Madonna and co. were changing their focus. The story didn't "quickly make its way" into international media, even though there was a celeb involved. Hardly anything from this part of the world ever does. And in fact the real story, the change of focus, still seems to be hovering somewhere beyond the peripheral vision of international media outlets and their readers. Instead, the opportunity to shine a light on how badly a celeb supposedly treated the poor Africans has finally got some attention, trailing stereotypes left and right.

2. This school is not being built but - and here is the second big point - something better is happening. Instead of spending ridiculous amounts of money to build one palatial school, the foundation will be investing in supporting existing, locally-relevant, sometimes even locally-run education projects and NGOs. This is better: it helps more kids for the same amount of money, it is far more sustainable and the impact may actually have an effect on the whole education system, rather than being restricted to an ivory-tower removed from the general population. Plus, the Kabbalah focus is replaced by direct concern for educational improvement. A luxury, private school remains 'unbuilt', the money is invested in a way that can be more useful to a greater number of Malawian children. "Folly", you say?

3. The story which has been picked up - the foundation's staff who are now suing for loss of income, etc. - is potentially much more complex than good Africans, bad celeb. First off, these individuals are not necessarily, automatically, poor, disadvantaged, "look-at-their-plight", innocent parties just because they are African. There is a middle-ground between "all Africans are corrupt" and "all Africans are poor, victimised, martyrs who need outside help". Someone misspent that money. Someone drank the expensive wine. Someone drove the expensive cars. Neither party sounds wholly innocent of blame. For now, the accusations will be ruled on by the Malawian courts, perhaps shining some much-needed sanitising light on a troubled court system. Assuming, of course, that the media's attention can be held for anything like that long, particularly if the case doesn't happen to reinforce the stereotypes of poor, victimised African and rich, uncaring celeb.

Yes, it is a problem that celebrity seems to be the only reason media pay attention to aid and development. But seeing as they do pay attention, pushing celebs to do it better - including admitting failure and choosing a better way of going forward - seems like a good option. Celebrities who want to get involved in helping should do more research, speak to more experts and try to get an accurate needs assessment and assistance plan going from the start. Media and commentators who want to criticise how celebrities do this, should make very sure they know the facts before jumping into the fray. If you, as the person criticising, seem to know as little as or less than the celebrities you're calling out, your voice probably only adds to the celebrity-charity-bandwagon, instead of staging the challenge this article feels is necessary.

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