LISTEN | Dan Brockington on the paradoxes of celebrity advocacy

The second seminar in our Global Development series took place yesterday, with Professor Daniel Brockington. Dan spoke on the paradoxes of celebrity advocacy in international development in the UK, and their consequences both for development and democratic processes.

Dan’s talk drew on themes addressed in his 2014 book, Celebrity Advocacy and International Development.

Listen to the talk:

The Global Development Seminar Series brings together scholars involved in cutting edge research on international development. It aims to facilitate dialogue and discussion, providing a space for leading development thinkers to share their latest research ideas with Manchester’s staff and students.

Listen to the first seminar, with IDS Director Melissa Leach on Equality, Sustainability & Security: Towards Transformations in a Global Development Era.

Band Aid Thirty, the IMF and the call to trust the doctor!

By Tanja Müller

Of course something was to happen for the 3oth anniversary of Band Aid, and the recent Ebola epidemic provided an opportunity too good to miss for self-obsessed Geldof and company! I will not engage here with the wider critique of the Band Aid approach to ‘Africa’, and have in fact done so in a blog long before the Band Aid 30 announcement and recording.

I want to instead focus on a seemingly unrelated issue: an End of Mission Press Release from a review mission to Mozambique by the IMF on 5 November 2014. In the report, Mozambique’s performance is being described as robust, and ‘regarding economic policies for the rest of 2014 and 2015, the staff team and the authorities agreed on the need to maintain revenue efforts and slow the growth of public spending, including the wage bill’. While the latter objective is to be achieved ‘in a manner that protects social spending such as basic health and education, and social assistance programmes’, the devil is in the detail. In fact, the biggest parts of the government’s wage bill are health and education, in particular in relation to the salaries of nurses and teachers. This has led to major teacher shortages in spite of the fact that a record number of teachers graduate from the Pedagogic University since it has expanded to various locations all over Mozambique. But those graduates are not being employed due to financial constraints or rather the financial straight jacket the government finds itself in, and schools in many areas now work in a three-shift system instead of two, meaning four hours of teaching only for affected children.

Even more surprising is the IMF view when considered in the light of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, even if this link is not obvious at first sight. The rapid spread of Ebola has largely been blamed on the poor state of the public health systems there. And, as Jo Hanlon in a recent Mozambique news report writes: ‘After its civil war ended in 2002, Sierra Leone was blocked by the IMF and international financial institutions from expanding its health service and was forced to introduce health charges which excluded the poor. There seems to be a growing recognition that African countries need to spend more on health – but it has not yet reached the IMF. There are few international health rankings, but the Legatum Institute attempts an International Prosperity Index. Mozambique ranks 120 out of 142 counties. But for health, it ranks 137. Of two of the Ebola countries, Liberia actually ranks higher in health than Mozambique at 133, and Sierra Leone at the bottom at 142’.

It remains an open question whether any IMF staff member has since clicked to ‘Buy the song. Stop the virus’, and more to the point, as stated in another recent blog, it is far from clear what Band Aid 30 donations will be spent on, a fact that does not seem to concern any of those who have already made it the fastest selling song of 2014 according to the Official Charts Company, a few days after its release on 16 November .

So what can one do to help the fight against Ebola if one happens to be a famous musician or artist? One answer has been given by a group of high-profile musicians from West-Africa, who gathered long before Geldof jumped into the limelight yet again and released a song of their own on 27 October. Their song actually has Ebola in the title and advocates for simple measures to keep the disease at bay, including to see the doctor with any symptoms – in English, French as well as a number of local languages. All its proceeds go to MSF, the medical-humanitarian organisation at the frontline in the fight against Ebola – making it relatively certain the money raised will actually flow into concrete health measures, not some dubious cause.

If you want to fight Ebola, STOP Band Aid 30 –  but support the artists behind Africa Stop Ebola instead!

This blog was originally posted at:– on November 21, 2014

Band Aid 30: ‘Buy the song. Stop the virus’. Just don’t ask how.

By Róisín Read

Since Bob Geldof announced he was re-recording ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ the media has seized upon the opportunity to report on every minutiae of celebrity involvement. From whether the BBC would excuse Rita Ora from The Voice (they did), to Adele’s non-involvement (she made a donation to Oxfam instead), to Damon Albarn questioning western ideas of charity, to Fuse ODG’s discomfort with the negative portrayal of Africa, the media has seize upon each new titbit, eager to stir up a storm.

I  am not intending to add to the multitude of voices challenging Band Aid for its portrayal of Africa, musical quality, or even the tax records of those involvement (though I share many of these concerns). My concern here is more mundane: how will the money be spent? Or more accurately why no one seems concerned by the lack of information about how the money will be spent.

At first I just tried to ignore Band Aid, but that proved impossible. Every time I turned on the news, listened to the radio or looked at a news website, I encountered articles and features aplenty telling me that Band Aid was raising money to fight Ebola in West Africa. The first couple of times I heard or read this I let it go, but with Bob Geldof’s interview on the Today programme that changed. I waited, listening for that all important question: how would the money be spent? It never came and my #bandaidrage began to simmer.

That morning, I endeavoured to find out. After an hour of searching, the best information available was from the terms and conditions section of the Band Aid 30 website (slogan: ‘Buy the song. Stop the virus’) telling me that ‘All proceeds from the Band Aid 30 competition will be donated to the intervention and prevention of the spread of Ebola’, and on the donations page more helpful information that ‘This year the Band Aid Trust will administer funds from #BandAid30 towards efforts to fight the spread of Ebola and to care for its victims’.  Leaving aside the confused reference to proceeds being part of a ‘competition’, I am still in the dark about how the money raised will actually be spent.

The Band Aid Trust’s mandate is apparently the ‘relief of hunger and poverty in Ethiopia and the neighbourhood thereof’. Only a very generous interpretation of this mandate would allow for the fighting of Ebola in West Africa to be included. Furthermore, from the information on the website, there is no commitment that the money will be spent in or even on West Africa.

So, why aren’t the media and the Band Aid buying public asking how the money will be spent? I’ve only encountered two such instances, Laura Seay on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog and Nigerian musician Breeze interviewed on Radio 4’s The World Tonight. The DEC Ebola Crisis Appeal makes clear which organisations it will pass the donated funds onto, people can look into those organisations and make an informed decision about whether they want to contribute to those activities. With Band Aid, they do not have this option. We don’t even have an idea of the timeframe in which the funds will be spent.

This is blind giving at its very worst. Band Aid has replaced the act of giving to an organisation in support of a cause with a transaction. We have been told in no uncertain terms by Geldof, that it doesn’t matter whether we like the song, we should just buy it anyway. It seems it doesn’t matter if we don’t know how the money will be spent either. The problem with this is that it suggests the act of giving is what matters, when actually it is the outcome that counts.

I think Breeze summed it up pretty well on Radio 4’s The World Tonight:

Breeze: ‘We don’t actually know if the funds that are going to be raised, are going to actually go to the right places. Are they going to get to the organisations that are on the ground, that are actually doing all the hard work in the countries?’

Ritula Shah: ‘We have to hope that that’s the intention’

Breeze: ‘Well, this is it. We have to hope and that’s part of the problem, there’s no transparency’.

My #bandaidrage isn’t just at Bob Geldof and the Band Aid Trust. It’s at the media and the public who seem unconcerned about a huge fundraising exercise with no concrete information about how the money will be spent. As a fundraising initiative #BandAid30 has proved very successful. We have to hope that its spending of that money will be successful too.

This post was originally published at:

Celebrity advocacy and post-democracy  

By Dan  Brockington

We have seen, in the first and second parts to this series, that development NGOs have systematically organised and professionalised their work with celebrity advocates, and that this does not necessarily resonate well with British publics. What we have yet to see is how well, and how effectively celebrity can work with political and corporate elites. To understand it properly however, we have to see how well this form of advocacy fits with current democratic trends. Specifically, celebrity advocacy is tailor-made for post-democratic societies, which tend to favour inegalitarian elites, even as it lobbies against international inequality.

Elite enthusiasm for celebrity advocacy is unmistakable. For corporate leaders there is a strong commercial logic here: celebrity endorsement is expensive, but companies can get free association (if not, strictly speaking, endorsement) between their products and celebrities, and promote their CSR, if they support charities with good celebrity advocates. Just take a look at large charities’ corporate sponsorship pages and see how often they offer association with famous supporters as a carrot to possible corporate supporters. There is also a personal pleasure, for corporate leaders will get to meet the celebrity supporters themselves – a perk of the job, a reward for their success.

A similar logic works with politicians – it’s both a personal reward, and has all sorts of valuable, positive publicity opportunities. As one experienced campaigner put it:

‘Suddenly you are meeting with the chief of staff or with the principal instead of a staff member two or three levels below, because you are accompanied by a celebrity. You also might be able to get a hearing on Capitol Hill because one of those testifying would be a celebrity… That happens all the time.’

Or as another put it:

‘If you find a Bono politicians will meet them… at the end of the day they all love to meet celebrities, they really do, it’s incredible.’

Knowing how political elites think is rather hard. By definition they are somewhat inaccessible. But two reports gathered, rather effectively, elite views about celebrity advocacy for development. One of them summarises discussions of a 3-day ‘Brookings Roundtable’ which brought together 50 very high-level advocates and policymakers in 2007. The other is an investigation by Brendan Cox into development campaigning based on over 300 interviews – again with good access to elite workers.

Both reports are clear that celebrity advocacy is useful for development causes, but they are interesting for the different reasons they give for this view. The Brookings Roundtable welcomed the public response to celebrity advocacy. Specifically this meant:

‘The hundreds of thousands who attended the 10 “Live8” concerts in the run-up to the Gleneagles [G8] summit, the more than 2.4 million signatures for the ONE Campaign, and the 63.5 million-strong audience for the 2007 U.S. television special American Idol: Idol Gives Back.’

Note that these are rather passive forms of participation, a commitment-lite (or even commitment-less) support that worries some commentators because it works by providing the appearance of popular support – offering a mandate for higher-level lobbyists.

Brendan Cox reports a similar finding, observing:

‘Engaging celebrities is particularly valuable in short-term campaigns that want to simulate mass public support but do not have the time to build it in key countries’ (p. 55).

Celebrity serves as a proxy for public engagement. It signifies the public, without necessarily enrolling them more actively.

Celebrity advocacy works because many Western democracies are in fact ‘post-democratic’. Post-democracy, as explored most lucidly by Colin Crouch, is characterised by a particular set of behaviours in the public and policymaking sphere, in which electorates are not particularly active or enthusiastic in their task of choosing representatives and holding them to account. Rather, ‘political elites have learned to manage and manipulate popular demands’, and ‘powerful minority interests’ are making the political system work for them’. Celebrity advocacy will clearly thrive in post-democratic societies because of the way it panders to elite desires, and because of the way it invokes public support, without necessarily requiring strong public participation.

Why does this matter? Post-democracy matters because post-democratic societies further the interests of powerful minorities such as corporate leaders and their lobby groups, whose prime interest is to make economies and societies more profitable, and not more egalitarian. As Thomas Pikkety has pointed out so powerfully, inequality matters because it is self-sustaining, and intensifying.

Celebrity advocacy may be Janus-faced. It offers the appearance of participation, of richer democratic involvement and engagement, and it can be enrolled in support of the fight against inequality. Yet at the same time these richer democratic processes can proceed quite compatibly with increasing inequality and fewer egalitarian policies. Celebrity advocacy is part of that procession.

Theorists of media and politics welcome the processes of engagement and involvement of celebrity, social media and other new forms of engaging politicians. But we must also consider the outcomes of that engagement. If celebrity advocacy does allow for greater public participation then it also means that we participate now more thoroughly in our own marginalisation. That is purely logical. For if, generally speaking, economic and social inequality has been increasing nationally and internationally, and if forms of media promote a more inclusive politics, so therefore we must have been participating more in that greater exclusion.

So, celebrity advocacy for international development is a strange beast. As we have seen from the first blog on this topic, this is now an organised and professional sphere of development activity. There is a great deal of celebrity advocacy in the public domain but it does not necessarily engage the public effectively. As the second blog showed, much of it seems to pass us by. But this absence of public appeal does not matter very much; the public believes that the public is engaged, and that gives all the legitimacy required. Moreover, as I have argued in this third blog, elites are thoroughly engaged by it. Celebrity advocacy appears tailor-made for post-democracies, for it has all the trappings of participation, but none of its fuss and time-consuming bother. It frees those who know most about the topic to get on with the real discussions. As another high-level campaigner put it to me:

‘The fewer [people involved] the better. If we could do all that without the bother of reaching out to millions of people we would do so. It’s cheaper and easier.’

And this may well work. It may well produce the sorts of policies which reduce poverty and inequality in particular instances. But will it do so more generally and in the long run? For it depends on elites being genial and selfless when the historical trend is that they do not behave that way. We can conclude, therefore, that a more agonistic politics is required than that which celebrity advocacy perpetrates.

Links and Further information
This blog summarises aspects of a newly published book that reports the findings of a research project into celebrity advocacy and international development. Others papers from this research are available on this page, and more about the research project behind it is available here.

This is the last in a series of three blogs which explores different aspects of celebrity advocacy. The work was funded by the ESRC (RES 070-27-0035).