Star Power

21 Jun
Photo from UNHCR

Photo from UNHCR

Past readers of the Global Kiosk already know that I am not exactly a fan of celebrities who get involved in development, poverty alleviation, and conflicts in poor nations that are so often the result of poverty, and elites fighting over whatever wealth and resources are there for them to fight over. In fact, I’ve written a whole chapter on the failure of this model – and I think is safe to call it that by now — in my book, ‘The Anatomy of Giving.’

I don’t mind them doing fundraising for the causes other, more dedicated people are running. And I don’t mind them lending their camera-ready presence to making the rest of the world more aware of the kinds of things they would probably rather ignore, like fistulas and female (read child) genital mutilation and the lack of basic sanitation in urban slums.

But I do mind them publicly deluding themselves — and us  — that they, incongruous as it may seem, are somehow equipped to run development efforts, set up useful charitable foundations, and suggest solutions to complex problems more knowledgeable people have inexplicably failed to think of.

Photo: Economic World Forum

Photo: Economic World Forum

These are, after all, people who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of not just personal success in their fields, but fame; they have both the money and the staff to make sure they always look great, despite the magazine spreads that delight in showing us that, sometimes, parking their cars or going to Starbucks, Stars Are Just Like Us.

And if, when I go to an IDP camp in Port au Prince, for example, I am aware that, even with my few writer’s grants and nice house, my life is vastly over-privileged compared to those of the people there, the lives of even average celebs are in a whole other galaxy of privilege. I may think about how lucky I am to have running water and appliances to wash dishes or clothes, compared to making do with a basin and standpipe. But who would even bother to imagine the typical Unicef ambassador, say, ever even thinking about such tasks? Someone else takes care of them.

If I have some control over the decisions that affect my life, and the poor have next to none, the wealthy have almost total control. It doesn’t even have to be in a space that is particularly grand, to find certain people convinced that anything they do or want to do is all right.

Take the Canadian Broadcasting Company, a sphere of influence that is almost laughably tiny compared to that of a Hollywood comedian or multi-million-album-selling rap artist. There too, the culture of celebrity – and celebrity arrogance– is at work, and the examples of egregious behaviour are quickly adding up. “When you create celebrities, you create monsters,” says Canadian media critic Jesse Brown.

I can’t help thinking about all this as I read about the aftermath of last year’s four-day Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. It took place in London, cost the British taxpayer more than $10 million — $600,000 for meals alone – and was hosted by a celebrity – in this case, Angelina Jolie – and the then-Conservative Foreign Minister, William Hague. It’s true – it’s hard to think of these two people caring that much about such a horrific phenomenon, one so painful and complicated, and so resistant to easy answers.

And although if there’s one justification I can think of for celebrities to get involved in these kinds of issue, it’s that the world’s decision-makers have left a great void in terms of dealing with them, that notion of mine gets no traction at all in the example of this Summit. It presented nothing new, nothing innovative. It was just another elite gabfest in luxurious First World surroundings, where the privileged sit down together and talk about the dilemmas of the (massively) underprivileged. At the end of it, a protocol was signed, a pledge to “eradicate” the rape of women and girls by military.

Well, who know it could be so simple?

Except that it wasn’t. Have African nation governments suddenly taken to prosecuting the criminals, you might ask, to curbing the rampaging of its military, and to helping these women recover from their ordeals? Has the rape of women and girls finally stopped in places like the Congo?

Tragically, the answers to those questions are no, no, no and not at all. Recent trials in Congo, where just one lawyers’ group, the American Bar Association in Goma, has received 18,000 complaints from women since 2008, were a sham. Only 126 cases were prosecuted, only 56 women were brought in to testify, and only two soldiers convicted.

Meanwhile, the two main local hospitals that deal with hundreds of victims every month have had their funding cut, as has Physicians for Human Rights, an organization that gathered forensic information, as have womens’ shelters. Rape victims received not a penny of the court-mandated compensation they are owed, and local lawyers are unable to afford either appeals or more prosecutions. When he asked for help from the international community, said Charles-Guy Makongo, a lawyer interviewed by The Observer, “we got none. We are totally alone. The international community seemed happy just to see the military in court.”

And how much did Hague’s own government contribute to the cause after spending $10 million to make him look good and to permit Ms. Jolie to earn herself an honorary damehood? Just about one fifth of that, a measly $2 million. The amount spent on hotels and transport was actually about the same as that slated for all of the eastern Congo.

Apparently I’m not the only person who thinks that part of the problem, no really the entire problem, with the celebrity summit was the focus on who got invited: important people, the ones who matter. Not the ones who suffer, who are willing to work for justice, and who just might, against all odds, actually have some answers.

“When the Minova women heard about the summit,”writes The Observer’s Mark Townsend referring to a town where sexual assault has been prevalent, “they hoped to be among the 1,700 delegates from 123 countries invited.” But they weren’t.

As lawyer Makongo put it, “No one wanted to know.”

Indeed these women, and others like them, are nobodies. They are people the elite of this world – including their own governors — will never meet, never listen to, and never respect. They are in a whole other distant galaxy of awfulness, one where star power has no hope of reaching.

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One Response to “Star Power”

  1. John A Carroll June 21, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

    Great post.

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