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Celebrity Efforts to ‘Save Africa’ Ha​​ve Often Only Reinforced Stereotypes

celebrity bring our girls backThirty years ago today, Bob Geldof organized a star-studded concert at Wembley stadium to raise funds for Ethiopian famine victims. Live Aid reached 1.9 billion people across 150 countries, and raised £40m (about U.S. $62 million).

Geldof was, in a sense, the pioneer of a new breed of celebrity “missionaries” with his efforts to end the Ethiopian famine. Yet, as American journalist David Rieff has noted, Live Aid’s donations to NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children also facilitated the displacement of 600,000 people by the autocratic Mengistu regime, resulting in an estimated 100,000 deaths.

Three decades after Live Aid, it is clear that celebrity efforts to “save Africa” have often done more to reinforce negative media stereotypes about the “dark continent” and to portray its 1 billion citizens as helpless victims in a new “white man’s burden.” The Economist, for example, depicted Africa as a “hopeless continent” in 2000, with its then Africa editor, Richard Dowden, penning an equally prejudiced cover story.

Often naive celebrities have burnished their own reputations as new missionaries of a troubled age: Geldof and Bono are seeking to “end poverty,” George Clooney is “saving” Darfur, Madonna has adopted children in Malawi as if buying new pets, while Prince Harry is on his way to Namibia to “save” the black rhino.

This cult of celebrity has often led to a dangerous dumbing down of serious issues, brushing aside other innovative and resilient grassroots efforts.


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