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Celebrity Activism: The Other Side of the Story


































Many critics say that celebrity activists are hypocrites - spending time with HIV/Aids patients in Africa, and then coming to their home countries living extravagant lifestyles. One such critic is Abdul Mohammed.

In his recent commentary published on this newspaper headlined, "Celebrity Activists: A Poor Imitation of UNICEF" [Volume 10, Number 488, September 6, 2009] Abdul passionately criticized the recent appearance of celebrity activists who have promoted their public profile at the expense of substance. He described the newly emerging celebrities as 'self-appointed' whose main interest and activity include photo opportunities and sound bites.

Although he refrained from mentioning the media savvy celebrities by name, I would include Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan to this list. These celebrity disasters, once unusually described by Newsweek's cover story as "Celebrities Gone Wild", cannot assume the position of activists. Their embarrassing portfolio makes them unfit to be role models to teenagers and reveals their commitment in philanthropic effort.

I am comfortable with Abdul's picks of the old day UNICEF celebrity activists such as Catherine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Richard Attenborough, Harry Belafonte and Sydney Poitier. They truly deserve the privilege as they have exploited their popularity as an influential instrument to shape policies.

However, it would be unfair to disregard the immense contribution of present day celebrity activists in different walks of life.

One such celebrity is Bob Geldof (Sir). Ethiopians never forget him and his colleagues in the mid-1980s as they raised 100m dollars for famine aid in a rock concert. By 1991, the Band Aid Project had also raised more than 140 million dollars for six African countries, including Ethiopia.

Bob Geldof, who is well-informed on a wide range of global issues, is well-known for his involvement in the "Make Poverty History" campaign aimed at alleviating third world poverty. The 2005 European Edition of TIME has recognized Geldof as one of the 2005 European Heroes by placing him in the front cover of the magazine.

Ethiopians cannot afford to forget the talk show host, Oprah Winfrey.

She had donated 450,000 dollars to the Addis Abeba Fistula Hospital. Oprah had also raised 10m dollars to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina. Her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa is engaged in preparing girls from impoverished backgrounds into the country's future leaders. Oprah is writing limitless success stories using her Angel Network initiative.

Another shinning celebrity activist is Angelina Jolie.

She is the Goodwill Ambassador for the UN. Media reports show that Jolie pays one-third of her income to charity. She also pays her own travel expenses while conducting UN missions in risky areas such as Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Cambodia. We do not have to forget also that this shinning star has adopted orphans from Ethiopia as well as other countries.

The U2 front man, Bono, is also an activist on behalf of debt relief for African nations. He was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and named by TIME magazine as its Person of the Year in 2005. Bono was rumoured to have been seriously considered for the possibility of the World Bank Presidency, according to Forbes magazine.

Bono was also instrumental in the G-8 decision to forgive more than 40 billion dollars of debt owed by 18 countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. He had constructive talks with political heavyweights such as former US President, George W. Bush; US Treasury Secretary, Paul H. O'Neill and Canadian Prime Minister, Paul Martin to mention just a few. World Vision Canada has described Bono as "a tireless crusader for issues affecting Africa."

Other prominent celebrity activists include: George Clooney, known for pressing his case concerning the crisis in Darfur; Leonardo Dicaprio, the environment activist; Michael J. Fox, the stem-cell research advocate and Sean Penn, anti-Iraq war campaigner who shelled out 56,000 dollars in 2002 for a full-page ad in the Washington Post deriding the Bush policy in Iraq.

These are only the major players. But the list is endless.

The local media have to encourage Ethiopian celebrity activists to involve themselves in philanthropic causes. I think there are many celebrities in the country who keep charity work low key. It is up to members of the media to bring up the activists' success stories to the limelight. After all celebrity involvement is crucial to raise awareness of the public in the development arena.



By Sileshi Yilma



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