The Downside of Celebrity Diplomacy: The Neglected Complexity of Development

By Dieter, Heribert; Kumar, Rajiv | Global Governance, July-September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Downside of Celebrity Diplomacy: The Neglected Complexity of Development


Dieter, Heribert, Kumar, Rajiv, Global Governance


Celebrities have become important participants in the debate on the future of development. The Irish rock star Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, is not only the front man of the band U2 but has also become the champion of an antipoverty movement with worldwide impact. Bono is supported by US economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has become a global spokesperson for poverty reduction, especially in Africa.

Surprisingly, the recipes being suggested by Bono and Sachs are breath-takingly one-dimensional and akin to the sweeping propositions of the 1960s: give aid to Africa, waive debt, and provide education, and the continent will develop. While these remedies may look seductive, unfortunately the reality is far more complex and demands attention to the specific circumstance of each individual country or subregion. Grand ideas for development are a dangerous recipe and may in fact worsen the situation of the poor.

In this article we address three issues related to the role of celebrities in international relations. First, we chart the rise of prominent celebrity activists in international affairs, in particular their impact on development policies of the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Second, we examine the competence of celebrities to handle development issues and suggest a more nuanced and less paternalistic approach. Third, we consider the legitimacy of celebrity activists and whether these nonelected individuals are well positioned to berate democratically elected governments.

Celebrities in Politics

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, development policy is heavily influenced, in the words of Paul Collier, by development biz and development buzz. (1) Development biz encompasses the aid bureaucracies, aid agencies, and development nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), all of whom make a living out of development. Development buzz, for its part, comes from rock stars, celebrities, and NGOs.

Development buzz has been a door opener for Bono and other celebrities in recent years. In 1999, Bono had an audience with Pope John Paul II. Six years later, Time magazine named Bono, together with Melinda and Bill Gates, as "Persons of the Year." Bono has attended the World Economic Forum in Davos as well as several summits of the Group of 8 (G8). He and fellow activist Bob Geldof gained particular prominence at the Gleneagles G8 summit of 2005 and the Heiligendamm G8 summit of 2007. At Gleneagles, Bono had one-on-one meetings with George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroder, and Paul Martin and also met Jacques Chirac after the summit. (2) At Heiligendamm, Bono again claimed center stage, holding meetings with various leading politicians. His supporters even set up camp in Berlin months before the event.

The attention celebrity diplomats received surrounding Heiligendamm was overwhelming. For example, for its May 2007 edition, Vanity Fair had a German singer, Herbert Gronemeyer, as its guest editor, and dozens of celebrities expressed their concern about poverty and hunger. Concurrently Bob Geldof was guest editor of an issue of the German tabloid Bild-Zeitung that laced pleas for greater development assistance with pictures of dying children and people afflicted with AIDS. (3)

Efficient public relations work has made celebrities core players who had better be consulted. Politicians today can hardly avoid meetings with Bono. When Stephen Harper, Canadian prime minister, said he was too busy for a meeting with Bono during the Heiligendamm summit, the rock star did not take no for an answer. He growled that Harper had blocked progress on aid for Africa, and the intimidated prime minister promised to find time for a meeting. (4)

Celebrity diplomacy extends well beyond G8 meetings and development issues, of course. George Clooney pronounces on Darfur. Robert Red-ford pronounces on Iraq. Not everyone is impressed. …

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