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Celebrities finally swamp advocacy market — an application of economic theory

After a string of deadly serious blogs on random variables and statistical evidence, industrial policy, the history of development thought, and Afghanistan issues, I think I’ve earned a break to do another (hopefully the last) in our popular series on celebrity advocacy.

To keep a bit of seriousness, though, I’m going to propose a theory of international trade between Africa and celebrities. Africa exports stereotypical images of misery in return for celebrities’ advocacy for more Africa funds. The theory of trade says that trade only happens when both parties gain. Celebrities gain some combination of altruistic satisfaction, a good PR image, and a boost for their acting or singing career. Africa gains aid funds.

If there is still any doubt about the Africa stereotype thing, the awesome blog Wronging Rights removed it yesterday by awarding its “headline of the week” to the Independent (Ireland) for the headline “We can’t abandon Africa to cannibalism and genocide.”

(Thinking of the stereotypes associated with my birth-state, this headline made me imagine a domestic counterpart: “We can’t abandon West Virginia to feuds and incest.”)

As always, things are more complicated than the simplistic theory above. The stereotypes are usually from NGOs, official aid agencies, and journalists outside of Africa, while some of the funds for “Africa” may get eaten up by these same intermediaries – NGOs, the UN, etc. So some proceeds of Africa’s exports of misery images gets captured by outsiders, the same as with some of Africa’s other exports.

Celebrity benefits, in contrast, do usually go directly to the celebrities. I am sure Bono has noble intentions, but his high international profile as Savior of Africa has not exactly been catastrophic for U2 revenues.

And for a wee bit of anecdotal evidence that celebrity advocacy is bad advocacy, U2 and Amnesty International are teaming up on a concert tour and Demand Dignity campaign in which they are peddling the dubious notion that poverty is best addressed as a human rights violation.

OK getting back to economics, what is the current state of supply and demand for celebrity advocacy? We teach our Econ 101 students that the market price is simultaneously equal to the cost of the last unit produced by the suppliers and the benefit of the last unit consumed by the demanders. A lot of supply drives down the price such that the additional benefit to the demanders is very low.

Supply keeps growing as new celebrities keep entering the sector. 17-year-old Disney Channel star Selena Gomez just visited Ghana for UNICEF as its newest ambassador (I would have missed this except for a tip-off from my 13-year-old). See the mercifully short 32 second video.

The current celebrity advocacy market indeed seems to have abundant supply. At least that was the impression I got from a web site announcing an Oscar-like Awards show for Celebrity Humanitarians. The celebrities being honored including some that I’d never heard of, like Brett Ratner. Even after I looked him up on the Internet, I still can’t remember what he is not famous for. So with the upcoming Noble Humanitarian Awards at which Brett is a headliner, the celebrities are barely trading above the price of used books at this point.

So maybe celebrity advocacy has finally saturated the market, and we could now give advocacy back to people who know something about their causes.

And I think my making fun of celebrity advocates has also saturated my blog market.

I’ll stop if they will.

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  1. Al wrote:

    cannibalism and genocide.amazing.

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 1:18 am | Permalink
  2. Justin Kraus wrote:

    As an Ohioan I say “We can’t abandon Ohio to mediocrity and soybeans.”

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 2:35 am | Permalink
  3. Stephen Jones wrote:

    “We can’t abandon Africa to cannibalism ….”

    Can’t we get some local entrepreneurs to package the recipes? Sounds like a business opportunity.

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:46 am | Permalink
  4. Bill Easterly wrote:

    Justin, you captured it awesomely on Ohio! I grew up there after leaving West Virginia. Best, Bill

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink
  5. solarafrica wrote:

    and as a Georgian I say, “We can’t abandon Georgia to slavery and peanuts!”

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  6. Tyke wrote:

    I spot a potential new internet meme here. My contribution:

    “We can’t abandon Yorkshire to flat caps and sheep shagging.”

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  7. Saundra wrote:

    Growing up in Utah I’d have to say “We can’t abandon Utah to polygamy and skyrocketing concealed gun permits”

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  8. Jim Bob wrote:

    I am now in the process of cleaning off my monitor following an involuntary regurgitation of my dinner induced by the thought of a “Noble Humanitarian Awards” for celebrities. I think we all agree that this is getting a little out of hand and is only being encouraged by these damned goodwill ambassadorships set up by UNHCR and UNICEF . . .

    Accordingly, I have a request . . . Bill, would you be able to unearth a little more about the economics of these ambassadorships? These publicly-funded agencies must surely spend a fair packet flying these goodwill ambassadors around the world (undoubtedly not in economy class) and putting them up (undoubtedly not in your average backpacker flophouse) and in associated publicity-generating activities such placing the agency’s name and logo on the front of jerseys in the English Premier League and advertizing on international news channels, etc. But exactly how much? And what is the opportunity cost of the money spent in such ways?

    And what is it that these agencies expect in return? As far as I know, the likes of UNHCR and UNICEF are not on any sort of fundraising drive for private contributions. Do they even accept them? My understanding is that member governments do the funding. Assuming that’s the case, is it really feasible that these celebrities and the various advertizing campaigns have generated any increases in member state contributions?

    Perhaps the agencies expect some kind of policy payoff, instead of a fundraising one. But has there has ever been a documented case of a goodwill ambassador effecting a meaningful and sustainable change in government policy? Has Angelina Jolie convinced the government of Thailand or any other non-signatory to put their pen to the 1951 convention on the rights of refugees, for instance? What did the good people of Ghana get out of Selena Gomez’ visit . . . or the good people of Afghanistan get from Jude Law’s undoubtedly very expensive UN-backed jaunt to Afghanistan a few years back for “International Peace Day” (it didn’t have the desired effect, I’m thinking)?

    So what exactly is the point (I sometimes wonder whether the whole idea was arrived at to tantalize the management of the respective agencies with celebrity access) and, more concretely, where is the cost-benefit analysis behind this undoubtedly expensive idea that many of your readers are probably indirectly financing? I would like to think that we should have a right to know . . .

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  9. Miquel wrote:

    As a Californian: “We can’t abandon California to vegans and yoga!”

    As a Croatian: “We can’t abandon Croatia to coastal resorts and Slovenia!”

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  10. Neel C wrote:

    Peter Van Onselen has an article in The Australian today about celebrities and Africa – I’m not sure that his suggestions are the best solutions available though.,,26105139-7583,00.html?from=public_rss

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  11. tom wrote:

    As a suburban Chicagoan: “We can’t abandon Illinois to the Daleys and Blagos!”

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  12. Abimbola Agboluaje wrote:

    Simple case of market failure. Regulators should be appointed for this market. Informational asymetries are too great. Only the celebrities, NGOs and UN agencies know what they are buying-comfortable/prolonged carreers. Everyone else is effectively shagged. And it’s got elements of a Ponzi scheme…first they wanted to make Africa catch up, then it’s basic needs, then its povery alleviation, then it’s aid relief, then it’s digital divide…what is next?!

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  13. Rob Godden wrote:

    Celebs could be defined as a ‘soft target’, and their role and impact should not be generalised. It is not clear to me how ‘celebrity advocacy is bad advocacy’ in the example of U2 and Amnesty? Whether Amnesty is correct to make the link between ‘poverty’ and human rights (which has been adequately discussed on your post regarding this) would seem to have little to do with U2 being involved – celebs are involved in all kinds of campaigns and are not setting INGO agendas (disclosure here – I work for Amnesty when I am not on sabbatical running a project on the use of visual media in social activism and Bono wasn’t at any of the strategy meetings, honest).

    However, the issue of celebs involvement in social activism is one that interests me. Their involvement is to attract an audience by exposure and association (they get more news coverage and people think they are cool). On the face of it not a bad tactic. But does this stem from a previous communication failure on the part of NGOs? Are the arguments not compelling enough? Are the images, voices, music and film of those directly impacted by the issues not good enough? One of the objectives of any campaigner is to narrow the gap between those you wish to take action and those impacted by the issue. It strikes me that you widen the gap by putting a celebrity in the frame. The contrast becomes starker. Who do I most identify with now? The guy in the village in Afghanistan or the celeb? First contact between NGO and audience may be facilitated by a celeb but after that does their involvement increase or decrease the likelihood of action being taken by that audience?

    Just as Amnesty is talking about human rights and poverty, Oxfam (Ireland) is talking about poverty and climate change. Their ‘Lets Face It’ campaign raised my eyebrows in regard to the use of celeb voice over (Jeremy Irons) and use of imagery (half naked African) that seems to tick all the wrong boxes. Check out the issues it raises and let me know what you think here

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:13 pm | Permalink
  14. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    We can’t abandon Bill Easterly to snarkiness and celebrity bashing!

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  15. We can’t abandon development to Bill Easterly and Bill Easterly watch…

    Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:48 am | Permalink
  16. Anonymous wrote:

    Re: Jim Bob……Yes, I agree. I’ve been wondering the same thing for a few years now. Have looked into it a bit – it would be interesting to get some actual data (actual outcomes from said agencies, rather than a simple “well this much money was raised” – as that is clearly a non-starter in terms of relevance to actual development). I feel that Kofi Annan played a big part in the hero worshiping of celebrities and the emergence of the ‘celebrity aid model’ agenda when he was secretary general (one only has to read his vomit inducing, floor scraping speeches to the celebrities in question “for giving their precious time” to the ever-so-appreciatve and humbled UN and, indeed the world at large. (Many of said celebrities of whom are not even involved any more….e.g. former spice girl Geri Halliwell.)

    I think it is a valid question and one that should be answered, so at the very least a proper dialogue can be started (with actual data on outcomes).

    Re the “Noble Humanitarian Awards” for celebrities…..??!! Nothing surprises me anymore..truly beggars belief.

    Posted September 23, 2009 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  17. Anonymous wrote:

    UNICEF runs entirely on voluntary donations from governments and private individuals. Government funding only covers 2/3 of its budget and then the organization has to fundraise from individuals and foundations around the world in order to cover the other 1/3.

    Posted September 23, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  18. Abby Carr wrote:

    As a New Yorker, “We can’t abandon New York to rats, gangs, and the Clintons”

    Posted September 23, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  19. Jim Bob wrote:

    So, I got around to wikiing UNICEF and owe them a partial apology . . . It seems that they do not in fact pay soccer teams to put their logo on their shirts, but rather the teams pay UNICEF for the right to wear their logo. Weird, I know, but according to the trusty Wiki, FC Barcelona “donate[s] 0.7% of its total yearly revenue to the organization for five years. . . , which will be the first time a football club sponsored an organization rather than the other way around”. I have also, in the time since my previous post, recalled more than a few UNICEF fundraising mechanisms directed at the public (such as the “Change for Good” scheme on Qantas and BA flights), so I was wrong on that too. However, I would still be very interested to see an accounting of how much is spent on these “ambassadors” and an analysis of the fundraising payoff to the respective public organizations. I think the latter is questionable enough to prompt some serious cost-benefit analysis (especially when one factors in the severe disutility induced upon most of us by the wave of celebrity hypocrisy that has arisen from this scheme).

    Posted September 23, 2009 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  20. Avam wrote:

    “UNICEF runs entirely on voluntary donations from governments and private individuals. Government funding only covers 2/3 of its budget and then the organization has to fundraise from individuals and foundations around the world in order to cover the other 1/3.”

    If anything UNICEF should make it clear how this money is being used then (not on what projects – but the outcomes of each project…E.g. yet another school being built somewhere by another group of eager college students is all fine and good, but, if as the case in many developing areas show – there are not enough teachers, or the ones that are available cannot be paid (due to lack of resources) or the students are expected to wear uniforms (this is often the case on Africa and Asia) but cannot afford them (or the required books), or the school runs during set times and does not take into account gender issues (toilets, or cultural constraints) or that some children will be expected to work during the main school hours, or they are too hungry to absorb any information (free school lunches, advocated by A Sen in many of the poorest states in India, has a been a great success)then money for a School and the building of a School is almost irrelevant in real terms. Surely, what there needs to be in aid and development as a whole – and what Easterly et al are advocating – is a sea change towards Outcome based development.

    Posted September 24, 2009 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  21. Avam wrote:

    On the topic of celebrity advocacy – thought I’d share this ‘Important News Alert!!’

    “Jessica Biel To Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro For Clean Water!!” (huffington post)…..though you’d think it would be easier if she just went to the grocery store 😉

    And herein lies the problem of celebrity ‘advocacy’ – “Biel, 27, said she was “astonished” to learn that more than a billion people across the globe have no access to clean water.

    “This is a basic human necessity that needs to be addressed now,” Biel said in a statement, adding that she’s proud to climb Kilimanjaro with the celebrity team “to help any way I can in order to raise awareness toward the life-threatening clean water crisis happening not only in Africa but around the world.”

    Let me get this straight…somehow Biel, a relatively educated (one would assume) 27 year old (so not a teenager) is both Astonished to only discover in the recent past that a billion people don’t have access to clean water, that this needs to be addressed Now (meaning – now she’s on the job with her celebrity cohorts we can all rest easy) and to that end will climb Kilimanjaro for funds….because we All know how money=aid=actual outcomes….sigh.

    This is what I find so incredible, that just because, somehow, she has missed such a basic issue (and no, I don’t think you need to be a specialist in development to have some interest in the world, and to therefore actually know about basic issues such as this), she feels the need raise awareness. Enough with this need for “awareness” above all else. Does it really matter, in many respects if “awareness is raised” (TM) – if the outcome of that is simply to have increased funds = aid without outcomes?

    Not to be the harbinger of extreme pessimism, but people that count on celebrity advocacy to ‘learn’ about an issue are probably not going to be the ones that make or break any change happening on the ground. Does it really Matter if Jolie or Damon or Pitt or Clooney or Affleck is featured in People “raising awareness”?……this idea behind awareness is becoming the end result (e.g. So, the end result of This is we have – theoretically anyway – made a bunch of people ‘aware’ – who we are now counting on to join in to make a difference – even though this awareness was dependent on them reading ‘People’ magazine. And if we are not counting on them, if in fact their knowledge and ‘awareness’ of said issue is a non-starter then it matters not a jot except to make them feel like they Have done something merely by reading about said celebrity issue and ‘feeling bad/moved/astonished/angry’ about it, while giving more PR to said celebrity who is now even closer to receiving their ‘charity humaitarian award’).

    I know such a cynical stance will raise eyebrows, but after watching this same circus for years all I can see that matters now is the outcomes on the ground – and, as far as I can see celebrity advocacy has not been particularly positive in any real terms. If anything it is reducing the dialogue to simplistic soundbites.

    link here:

    Posted September 24, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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