The Problems with Celebrity Humanitarians

Celebrity involvement in humanitarian issues – and the media coverage this creates – is a controversial topic in humanitarian communication studies. Some scholars believe that celebrity involvement can dumb down campaigns and distract from important issues. Others argue that celebrities play a crucial role raising awareness and representing the concerns of citizens. We asked some leading researchers for their thoughts. Below, you can see their bios and answers to our questions on the use of celebrities in humanitarian campaigns.

By Carolina Are

Susan Hopkins

Dr Susan Hopkins Susan Hopkins is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland. In a recent article titled ‘UN celebrity ‘It’ girls as public relations-ised humanitarianism‘,  she analysed the content of Australian women’s magazines and argued that feminist celebrity activists might inadvertently contradict the cause of global gender equality. We talked about public relations, feminism and framing in the coverage of humanitarian scenarios.


Lisa Ann Richey

The editor of Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations, Dr. Lisa Ann Richey is a Visiting Professor at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University in the US and Professor of International Development Studies in the Department of Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University, Denmark. Dr. Richey has recently written an article on Ben Affleck’s engagement in Congo. Co-authored with Alexandra C. Budabin, the article argues that global celebrities are increasingly important in human rights movements —promoting causes, raising awareness, interacting with decision-makers and communicating issues to mass and elite audiences. Dr Richey is also writing a monograph entitled Batman Saves Congo: Celebrity, Disruption and Neoliberal Development with Alexandra C. Budabin.

Alexandra C. Budabin

Alexandra Budabin

Dr. Alexandra Cosima Budabin is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science and Senior Researcher in the Human Rights Center of the University of Dayton. She is also a Contract Professor at the Free University of Bolzano teaching a course on New Media for Participatory Democracy and a Senior Researcher at Eurac (Bolzano). Her research focuses on civil society, the role of transnational actors such as celebrities, NGOs, and business in the global governance of human rights, new media, public-private partnerships in humanitarianism and development, and genocide.  With Lisa A. Richey, Dr Budabin is writing Batman Saves Congo:Celebrity, Disruption and Neoliberal Development (forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press).

Martin Scott

Dr Martin Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Media and International Development in the School of International Development (DEV) and lead researcher of the AHRC-funded Humanitarian Journalism project. He is author of Media and Development (Zed Books, 2014) and has written academic articles and book chapters on the subjects of humanitarian journalism, celebrities and development, representations of Africa, mediated cosmopolitanism and the role of popular culture in politics.


Picture Source: AP

Some people argue that, although “dumbed down” and simplified, celebrity culture has helped raise awareness about humanitarian causes. Do you agree and why?

SH. Yes and no. Although it is indeed possible Western celebrities have raised awareness of humanitarian causes, the problem is that raised awareness does not necessarily translate into political action or any real change for those foreign ‘others’ that celebrity activists supposedly represent. Indeed, these vulnerable and suffering ‘others’ typically have very little control over how they are being represented or misrepresented. Typically, the issues covered are not just ‘dumbed down,’ but depoliticised and twisted into a sugar-coated, PR-ised story about celebrity personalities and celebrity lifestyles.

My argument is that this is particularly evident and objectionable in women’s magazines, where these humanitarian causes are not just simplified, but absorbed and overridden by the story of celebrity identity, and celebrity motherhood in particular. Moreover, the humanitarian cause is also used in mainstream women’s magazines as an instrument to sell celebrity products such as films and celebrity brands and fashion. In turn, this presents a significant and disturbing moral problem for our times (in this social media age especially), and for the millions of ordinary people influenced by celebrity actions and artifice.

It seems to me, the celebrity approach to humanitarianism tends to produce more of an ego response rather than a deep moral response – resulting in a kind of contradictory, staged performance of ‘Look-at-Me Humanitarianism.’ Instead of raising awareness of the foreign ‘other,’ it invariably makes the story all about the familiar celebrity ‘self.’ In this more philosophical sense, celebrity activism can never really work, because it is always, at the same time, drawing more attention to the celebrity than to the cause she supposedly represents. In women’s magazines especially, complex social and political issues get collapsed into the familiar, individualistic narrative of the beautiful and empowered white woman who miraculously conquers the world and saves it, at the same time!

LAR: Celebrity humanitarianism is actually not ‘dumbed down’ at all. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of celebrity humanitarianism when you actually study the initiatives that involve celebrities is that they tend to be highly professional— both the celebrity humanitarian workers themselves and the experts from NGOs, states and businesses that work with them.

So, while the messages that are communicated to the public are often rightly critiqued for presenting a ‘dangerous single story,’ this reflects the larger simplification of the humanitarian message to raise support, not the problem somehow ‘caused’ by the involvement of celebrities. Celebrities are just part and parcel of the elite nature of the politics of North-South relations. Instead of bringing in popular voices to participate in more democratic distributions of power, celebrities are brought in instead. Celebrities don’t mobilize the public. They replace the public. Humanitarianism is an increasingly professionalized field of generic technicians who have replaced caring volunteers. In contrast, celebrities are extraordinary, not generic, and their skills are to perform caring involvement.

ACB: An increasing number of celebrities have entered humanitarianism by aligning themselves with causes, representing various NGOs or humanitarian agencies, and even forming their own organizations. The high visibility of celebrities along with intense press coverage of their activities has certainly brought greater awareness of humanitarian causes. However, the degree to which celebrities both broaden and deepen our understanding of humanitarian causes is an important area of concern. Many celebrities do cluster around the same issues because the terrain is easier to enter. In their appearances or field visits for organizations and agencies, celebrities are often stage-managed and are encouraged to stick to scripts. In what might be described as going freelance, other celebrities have taken steps to speak with experts, conduct multiple site visits, and present a more informed perspective.

In our work, we’ve investigated the latitude available to a celebrity that has taken such steps and formulated a unique agenda around a cause in ways that are not “dumbed down”. Ben Affleck formed an organization Eastern Congo Initiative in 2010. His decision to choose a less known issue area (as well as focus on a single region) was deliberate. It might have been risky but his status as a celebrity ensured that he would still find support in the form of political endorsements and financial resources.

Scholars like Severeine Autesserre have shown that Congo is understood through a narrow lens, a singular narrative that represents Congo through a cause, consequence and solution based on conflict minerals, sexual violence, and state authority. We found that Affleck did not adopt this singular narrative wholesale but rather presented alternate framings of the cause, consequence, and solution to Congo’s challenges. The narrative is still simplified to some extent, but offers a departure from the dominant story thus enabling Affleck’s audiences to gain a bit more nuance about Congo. Our research challenges assumptions around celebrities’ superficial engagement though we stress that the ability to “disrupt” the dominant narratives is based on his elite status. Having his own organization and being able to tap expertise enabled Affleck to both find a platform and present a more informed perspective on Eastern Congo.

MS: It obviously can, or has the potential to, raise awareness of some humanitarian causes. I don’t think that is in question. There are, I am sure, a number of examples of celebrities helping to get certain crises covered in the media that would not otherwise have been covered. Their presence can simply make events/crises more newsworthy. However, it does not follow that the involvement of a celebrity will therefore necessarily help to ensure a humanitarian crisis receives more coverage.

Previous research by Thrall et al. in 2008 has shown that most celebrity-endorsed campaigns don’t receive much coverage. In other words, we only hear about the successful examples – rather than the many unsuccessful ones. Furthermore, its usually only the already very famous celebrities who are able to raise awareness of certain causes. Finally, there are also questions to be asked about what kind of coverage celebrity involvement generates. The celebrity may well end up distracting from or over-simplifying the crisis itself.

My own research with UK audiences suggests that, in general, “celebrities are generally ineffective in cultivating a cosmopolitan engagement with distant suffering.” When celebrities are perceived as being ‘authentic’, audiences are more likely to connect with the celebrities than with the cause. Equally, when celebrities are perceived as being ‘inauthentic’, audience interaction with distant suffering is characterised by distance and indifference. Finally, even on occasions in which ‘authentic’ celebrities were linked to relatively proximate and active encounters with distant suffering, this engagement was characterised by pity and charity.

© UNHCR/O.Laban-Mattei

How can the UN use celebrities more effectively?

SH. Presumably, the UN deploys celebrities to stay in step with and profit from connections to popular culture, but such is the evolution of popular culture that the contemporary cliché of celebrity humanitarianism is now being mocked in intertextual media and social media forms. The satirical ‘White Saviour Barbie’ Instagram site, for example, pokes fun at narcissistic Western activists in Africa posting selfies, with the catch-phrase, ‘It’s not about me… but it kind of is.’ The cultural tide may actually be turning against hypocritical elites, including celebrity elites, who claim to speak on behalf of the ‘people’ while simultaneous profiting from hierarchical and unjust systems. Indeed, you could argue that worshipping fashion and beauty elites is the very antithesis of democracy and is not doing the cause of global female empowerment any favors.

Moreover the revolving door of female celebrity ambassadors, apparently chosen for how fashionable or ‘hot’ they might be at that point in time, seems to inspire as much cynicism and exhaustion as it does inspiration or emulation. Of course the UN seems to be really just one of a number of agencies or institutions in public life that are increasingly corporatised and made over by the PR industry. For those interested in learning more about how PR processes and logic distorts reporting on global issues, I would recommend the excellent critique Flat Earth News by Nick Davies (2008). In 2018, ten years later, I think the media literate public is actually growing quite tired of this relentless PR-isation of public space and so if the UN wants to keep rolling out celebrity ambassadors it needs to at least be sensitive to alternative resistant readings and cultural shifts.

If they are going to keep using celebrity women of the West as the face of a cause, like global gender equality, they need to do it in a way that respects and recognizes the agency of ‘other’ women, instead of reproducing a simplistic duality of empowered and oppressed, heroine and victim, subject and object. It might also enhance their credibility to select spokespersons who actually have some real life, lived experience of the issues they supposedly represent, instead of focusing on articulate, wealthy and privileged actors who are merely playing the part. Otherwise the logic of celebrity ambassadors can produce the opposite of its good intentions and might be read as outdated, corrupt and insulting to ‘ordinary’ women.

LAR: The UN should use celebrities at home for advocacy, not abroad for humanitarianism. We must distinguish celebrity humanitarianism from celebrity advocacy. Celebrity humanitarianism requires a needy ‘Other’, it is something that one actor does for another. Advocacy is taking up a cause and amplifying it in the public discourse. So advocacy could be about issues across the political spectrum that engage the celebrity’s own communities or those of Others.

Through celebrity advocacy, celebrities do make noticeable differences to domestic political behavior or health outcomes. This is different from the consequences of celebrity humanitarianism for which we have little evidence of the influence of celebrity interventions on measurable behaviors and political outcomes on distant causes.

But political leaders must be accountable to the people who put them in, and remove them, from power. Even if some forms of celebrity politics can be considered ‘legitimate,’ celebrities themselves are not formally accountable to anyone.

ACB: The UN could use celebrities more effectively by varying their appearances and lightening up on the state management. On Twitter, Jeff Crisp has pointed out that celebrities continually pay visits to refugee camps while the majority of refugees live elsewhere. The celebrity appearances in refugee camps reinforce the impression that all refugees are in camps.

MS: It depends what you mean by ‘effective’ – what they are trying to achieve. Awareness raising? Fund raising? I guess the implication of the argument above is that the UN and others need to know when to use a celebrity and when not to.

Dan Brockington’s research shows that the choice of celebrity, the kind of expertise or authority they offer, and the ‘fit’ with the cause is extremely important. As I say above, you can not assume that the involvement of a celebrity will automatically generate more coverage.  Other research has also suggested that the key role of celebrities is not necessarily in gaining media attention – but in gaining elite attention. It’s about how the celebrity relates to and explains the issue. As with all forms of coverage of humanitarian crises, I would encourage them to move away from de-politicising events and framing solutions in terms of quick-fixes based on sentiments of pity and charity.

UN Women/Catianne Tijerina

How can magazines and the media better cover these topics?

SH. They could start by being more critical, transparent and honest about the privileged position and vested interests of these celebrities typically celebrated in women’s magazines as the selfless, caring and compassionate saviours of other women. Of course in reality it is very unlikely mainstream women’s magazines would ever ‘bite the hand that feeds them’ by exposing the real inequality behind the celebrity system – not when they all feed off the advertising dollars of oppressive beauty and fashion industries. Instead of producing simplistic ego documents which focus primarily on building the celebrity brand, they could provide more balanced, focused and in-depth coverage of humanitarian issues – but again this is unlikely in such a PR-ised world, manipulated by celebrity managers and minders.

On a more philosophical level, a celebrity activist who sincerely wants to be less of a celebrity and more of an activist, needs to do more radical ‘unselfing’ and ‘self-forgetting’. The self-obsession of celebrity logic and celebrity discourse distorts how the self engages with the other. Deep humanitarianism is not about making the self a ‘bigger’ and ‘better person’, rather it is about focusing on the other and their best interests. Of course it may be too much to expect celebrity elites to challenge the individualistic logic of the global marketplace which made them so influential and popular in the first place! Perhaps pop stars, fashion models and movie actors are actually not the best ambassadors for global gender equality.

LAR: Two ways: first, pay attention to celebrities who come from the global South and the practices and politics of celebrities when working in the global South. Let go of the white savior complex that suggests that the only real change-makers in celebrity humanitarianism and advocacy are those from the Hollywood A-list.

Second, use the media spotlight that celebrities can attract to draw public attention to questioning policies that are being put in place on their behalf by politicians, to products they are being sold as ways to ‘help’, and to stories that make heroes out of rich, white people and victims out of everyone else. Raise suspicion of quick-fix solutions and anything that does not involve the so-called ‘beneficiaries’ at all levels of decision-making.

ACB: For better or worse, media will look to celebrities to channel distant suffering for audiences in the North. Seeking out local celebrities or celebrities who advocate for lesser-known causes may be one way of broadening public understanding of humanitarianism. Media could take care not to focus primarily on the celebrity, making room for additional voices and perspectives. Making sure that engagement with an issue goes beyond raising-awareness to taking some form of action would also be another useful way of channeling attention in a productive fashion.

MS: For me, it’s about plurality. In order to have a better understanding of the world and our place within it – we need to be able to watch a wide range of kinds of content – not just celebrity-advocacy campaign or breaking news coverage, but also documentaries, short films and other genres, including fictional genres. This should be an important element of the role of a public service media.