On Sunday, The New York Times opened a forum to discuss the effectiveness of celebrity philanthropy and ambassadorship, all in light of former NBA player Dennis Rodman’s recent “basketball diplomacy” tour of North Korea during a tense time in U.S. relations with the country, as well as his trip to the Vatican to support the potentiality of the first black pope.
“Can celebrities like Rodman, Bono or Angelina Jolie who get involved in diplomacy or antipoverty efforts offer a useful diplomatic service, or are they just putting pretty and recognizable faces on complicated and unwieldy issues?” the Times asked.
Generally speaking, celebrity philanthropy is a positive endeavor. It generates publicity and awareness of a cause, perhaps helping an issue or organization gain the support of more followers and thus achieve longevity and success in its humanitarian work. Bono’s Product Red campaign, for example, has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for HIV/AIDS programs in Africa. Few non-celebrities can say the same of their own philanthropic power.
But how genuinely effective is celebrity philanthropy? Behind the glamorous aid efforts and the adopted children in need, celebrity charity can seem un-genuine. Always there exists the possibility that their acts of humanitarianism are stunts for good public relations, if not simply a way to rid themselves of personal guilt over their own bankbook. If guilt is an issue, and if they really care about a cause, celebrities can afford to donate millions and still live better than their poorer, foreign counterparts. The great divide between the rich and the starving, consciousness of which surfaces when the rich make a spectacle of their dealings with the abject poor, is almost sickening.
One problem with celebrities is that they are not real diplomats. They may indeed tend to a single cause, or represent it. But they might not commit to it and help to generate local, sustainable and real solutions to the problems to which they naturally bring awareness. Their presence on a scene must be long lasting or their effectiveness is short-lived and thus hardly effective at all.
True, a celebrity might be passionate about philanthropy — many of us are, it’s just that we don’t have the same means to help as the rich and famous do. It’s both an upside and a downfall that a famous individual’s humanitarian efforts will be followed and documented, thereby making the gesture seem un-genuine. But if indeed a celebrity cares about a cause, perhaps they should lead by example and donate more money to charity. Better yet, to charities (plural), both foreign and domestic, because people in the U.S. could use their help too.