It seems that Mick Jagger and Ben Affleck have joined hands to bring the latest in celebrity humanitarian efforts. I applaud both Jagger and Affleck for producing a film designed to raise awareness about the problems facing the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and yet my inner skeptic wonders how much impact the effort might really have?
Criticisms are rife of celebrity efforts to use their fame in the service of addressing social justice and humanitarian efforts. Most prevalent, perhaps, is the tendency to see such efforts as inherently self-serving — a way for celebrities to assuage their own sense of guilt over the plight faced by so many human beings in the face of their of excessive lifestyles. Nothing, so the argument goes, ever really gets accomplished other than a handful of superstars getting to feel better about themselves.
This, I think, is not the primary criticism or insight that ought to be leveled at such efforts. Indeed, I don’t think that my skepticism is born of criticism, per se.
Jagger and Affleck don’t seek to resolve the problems in the DRC with their new film, Gimme Shelter, but rather to raise general awareness about the issues facing the region. For which I, again, think they ought to be applauded.
If those of us in developed countries are not even aware of the challenges facing those in lesser developed countries, then we are a far sight away from being able to do anything about them, if, indeed, doing something is in order (arguments abound around notions of interventionism). But raising awareness is certainly the first step.
In this regard, celebrities like Jagger and Affleck are in a unique position. Almost no other individuals on the planet have the ability to immediately reach, inform, and influence such a broad swath of people as celebrities like Affleck and Jagger. Where such celebrities seek to use their rather singular position to beneficial ends, I am disinclined to launch any opposition.
But the challenge that remains, for which celebrities offer little recourse, is that raising awareness simply isn’t enough.
Throughout the decades, different celebrities have lent their names to a variety of causes in attempts to do some good. But in a continent like Africa, little in the way of tangible results have surfaced. Tangible results surface when heightened awareness is paired with some kind of realistic plan to address the issues in question.
What’s more, that plan needs to be as organic in nature as possible.
What I mean by that is to say that top down plans that emanate from the thinking of individuals in developed countries that are not co-developed, or at least embraced and customized to the lives of those actually suffering the issues in question have a tendency to fall far short of expectations. Far reaching changes to a region of the world must ideally be initiated by those on the ground who are expected to sustain the results.
More often than not, this is not the case.
It is true that such plans can entail an engagement and involvement of the afflicted individuals and groups, allowing for open back and forth of ideas and solutions that take into account all the various factors and dynamics on the ground, but such a process is both a careful dance and an arduous process. For evidence of the difficulty, as any NGO operating in a war torn or poverty stricken region.
Awareness of the challenges and needless deaths of people in a variety of African countries and regions have been the focus of celebrity attention from for decades, from Bono to Angelina Jolie. Again, these humanitarian efforts ought not to be ridiculed, but if we are to effectively address the issue we ought spend some time understanding the nature of the challenge that lies before us.
At this point in time, we’re not facing a shortage of awareness, we’re facing a shortage of plans.