Hollywood Humanitarians: Help or Hindrance?

First published on Ctrl.Alt. Shift on October 15 2010

This month Sean Penn is awarded the Hollywood Humanitarian Award for his work in Haiti… but exactly how much good can celebrities feasibly do in helping resolve desperate situations around the globe? More importantly, do they do it for the right reasons? Ctrl.Alt.Shift’s Amy Hall explores the impact of the humanitarian celebrity…

Despite getting a lot of criticism for their flashy lifestyles, many celebrities do take an active interest in charitable work. While the more cynical among us may accuse the rich and famous of using charity work as an effective (but immoral) means of gaining popularity, there are evidently some big names out there who genuinely care about the bigger picture. Ctrl.Alt.Shift ambassadors like Riz Ahmed are entirely dedicated to using their popularity for a good cause, proving that fame can be utilised to put across a positive message to an already captive audience.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are the latest Queen and King of the celebrity humanitarian world, but almost every celebrity has some kind of charity or campaign work they’re involved with. Whether it is George Clooney’s efforts to stop genocide in Sudan or Rhianna’s ‘Believe’ foundation which helps terminally ill children, celebrities the world over are doing their bit to prove that compassion is cool.

Of course, the actions of celebrity humanitarians like Penn to raise the profile of worthy causes are extremely commendable. The worrying thing is that it can take the glitzy power of celebrity to inspire us to sit up, take notice and act’

These caring celebrities are, unsurprisingly, always looking for ways to publicise their cause, and maybe it’s time we gave them a pat on the back for their efforts. This is where humanitarian awards ceremonies come in handy – all the glitz and glamour of a typical award ceremony, but with no need to feel guilty at the extravagance entailed. It’s for the good of humanity after all. Hmmm…

Awards ceremonies that acknowledge the charitable work of celebrities are becoming increasingly common, though perhaps one of the most glamorous among them is coming up on October 25. The Hollywood Humanitarian Awards are part of the Hollywood Gala Awards Ceremony at the Hollywood Film Festival in Beverly Hills, an important date in the diary for any self respecting celebrity do-gooder.

This year’s Hollywood Humanitarian has recently been announced: none other than two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn. Penn already seems to have proved himself as an all round good egg; acting as a roving reporter from troubled regions like Iraq, and even covering the election protests in Iran. His CV also boasts interviews with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s head of state, Raul Castro.

This latest accolade Penn received is for his work in Haiti, following the earthquake which devastated the island at the beginning of 2010. Penn founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization which focuses on providing medical aid, protection and relocation to Haitians affected by the quake. Penn seems to have been developing a special relationship with the country, and has even been knighted by Haiti’s President Rene Preval.

Of course, the actions of celebrity humanitarians like Penn to raise the profile of worthy causes are extremely commendable. The worrying thing is that it can take the glitzy power of celebrity to inspire us to sit up, take notice and act.

The sad fact is, the technicolor mages of suffering in developing countries that the media beams into our living rooms on a regular basis can often feel profoundly detached from our own lives. Perhaps it can take a celebrity to bridge this gap, to utilise their charisma and familiarity to show us the inherant similarities between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Videos of celebrities visiting places like Africa form an integral part of high profile charity appeals like Comic Relief, and compel people to pick up the phone and give money to people half way across the world.

However, a celebrity endorsement does not solve everything. It seems that issues of international development are as vulnerable to the fickle, fast paced nature of the global media as the celebrities themselves. When a story becomes less newsworthy, many desperate situations and worthy causes are dropped from the agenda and the urgency seems to dim; there is a new disaster to respond to, a new crisis somewhere else.

It seems that issues of international development are as vulnerable to the fickle, fast-paced nature of the global media as the celebrities themselves’

Once the initial media flurry around a disaster, a crisis, or a desperate situation has died down, money, support and a constructive and sustainable action plan for the future are still required. In Haiti, the pieces still need to be picked up, and a plethora of organizations are still working on this, including Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief. It seems that issues of international development are as vulnerable to the fickle, fast-paced nature of the global media as the celebrities themselves.

The cold hard truth remains – it’s going to take more than monetary hand outs to solve global poverty.

Poverty is the result of human structures and systems. It is the product of marginalisation. It is what happens when people are excluded from decision-making processes. Celebrity endorsements can bring a rush of money to a specific community or location, but if the way in which this aid is delivered isn’t well considered, the charitable act can be more detriment than development.

Celebrities are pretty stuck. If they don’t give money to good causes they are accused of not helping and greedily hoarding the millions to themselves. When they do act charitably, they’re accused of glory hunting, trivialising the cause, or even causing more harm than good.

In today’s media saturated, glamour obsessed culture, maybe it’s inevitable that celebrity culture seeps into every part of our lives. If these Hollywood do-gooders actually manage to do some good then why should we complain? And who knows? Maybe in the not so distant future we’ll see Hollywood stars battling it out to become the Most Humanitarian instead of the Best Director. Regardless of the image the red carpet snaps or award show reviews portray, it is the international charitable organisations, and the vulnerable communities in developing countries themselves, who truly have the power to christen ‘the celebrity humanitarian’ a help or a hindrance.

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