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Hips don’t lie about aid

UPDATE December 14, 2010: The Guardian refers to this post in hosting a discussion of the role of celebrities in development.

I’ll get some grief for celebexploitation on this one… but what the heck..

The celebrity aid phenomenon is not going away any time soon, so one wonders … are there any celebrities doing it better than others?

The Wall Street Journal had an interview with Shakira about her philanthropy efforts.

There are a few things to like:

(1) Shakira is concentrating on a place she knows well — her native coastal Colombia, including her hometown of Barranquilla. Points for local knowledge compared to Africa-touring celebrities who wouldn’t know a fufu stick from a groundnut. When she visits her projects, she’s visiting people she knows.

(Another nice touch is that the journalist interviewing Shakira is also from Barranquilla.)

(2) She’s starting to work with impoverished Latino kids in the US — another group she knows well from her own life experience. More points for local knowledge.

(3) She’s focusing on primary and secondary education, which apparently she again feels strongly about from her own experience.  Points for specialization.

Where did the revenue from the world’s most valuable hips go?

Shakira’s latest contribution went to our hometown. In February 2009, the Barefoot Foundation inaugurated a $6 million K-12 mega-school. El colegio de Shakira, as it is known locally, gets only praise. A friend described it to me as an American institution, by which she meant state-of-the-art. The complex includes an auditorium, chemistry labs and even air conditioning. “Parents receive English classes and computer skills,” Shakira says, “and the entire neighborhood can play soccer there.” Families look for every possible way to move close to the school.

So, getting away from the idea that this blog will always and everywhere ridicule any celebrities doing philanthropy, here’s a case that looks better than many others.

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  1. Wren Elhai wrote:

    Don’t worry, Bill! Shakira is also building a school in a place where she has much less local knowledge & doesn’t know the language. Just this past week, she jetted into Port-au-Prince:

    “At the planned site of her Barefoot Haiti school, she met about a hundred children, some of whom danced to her songs. She then toured a camp housing nearly 50,000 people on a golf course. There, she met U.S. actor Sean Penn, whose own charity is also helping victims.”

    Now, Shakira seems to have acquired a bit of education sector experience– and certainly, given the immediate needs in Haiti, we can’t blame sectoral experts who might not speak perfect Creole for trying to help. (Shakira apparently speaks a little French: in addition to Spanish, English, Portuguese and possibly some Italian and Arabic).

    Or can we? There’s plenty here to hang your cynic’s hat on if you’re so inclined…

    Posted April 17, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  2. piolon wrote:

    Shakira is hot. Her work with Pies Descalzos is awesome (see website: ). Building nice/decent schools for the poor: truly priceless (and a right too, according to the Colombian constitution art 67 ( ) and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: art 26)

    Internationally, she leads also something with other artists: Fundacion Alas: a foundation for promotion of Early Childhood Development (0-6) across the Latin America and the Caribbean (website: ) . One of its major supporters is Mr. Carlos Slim.

    A couple of years ago, I attended a panel of this foundation in NYC, hosted a dear friend of yours Professor Sachs @ Columbia University. Among the distinguished panelists were a handful of LAC presidents and the President of the IDB, another Colombian, Mr. LA Moreno. She was trying to promote/sell partnerships and projects for Early Childhood Development in the region. In the super VIP seats, you could find people as Ruben Blades and Sammy Sosssa. Most speakers chose to speak in Spanish. I remember registration was very difficult and that the line to enter was huge. Inside, once she came out from backstage, her fans screamed very loud in hysteria. Aid is indeed lucky to have her, because of the magnitude of the attention she draws. I am sure it can also help un-wash some brains along the way, and perhaps hope to open some minds regarding the real problems of the world (“The dont be happy, worry” effect). My overall impression was that most of these kids were there just to see her (nothing bad at all of course), perhaps some w/o knowing what the panel was about. Many of them, I am sure, still spell Colombia as Columbia.

    Just recently, I read, ALAS signed something with the World Bank (here is the story: ) . I think her international work is good too. Good becasue it is not charity, is investment, as Pies Descalzos is.

    Shakira is definetively hot.

    Another Colombian Celebrity doing great things, but with low, perhaps very low profile is Juan Pablo Montoya. Ex-F1 now Nascar talented car racer. In the same page is Camilo Villegas (PGA world famous golfer). It would be nice to shine a light and find out what they are really doing to help Colombia too. It can also help to give example and raise awareness.


    Posted April 17, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  3. Karis wrote:

    It would generally be better to target problem directly than homogenizing groupings…such as celebrities. First – like it or not we live in a pretty dumbed down society, and people, especially youth, listen to their ‘heroes’. They also have a far wider audience than academics (of which I am). So it is all how celebrities are used as vehicles that matters. And many are poorly used and/or given too much authority (ms Jolie participating in the UN and the WEF comes to mind).
    Second – remember when you critique voices of contention on local knowledge that most of aidwatch is white and western. The point is that people are thinking critically and are informed. Not where they are from. White people have intelligence to offer too. And in fact, sometimes when people are immersed in suffering and desperation, they may lack the objectivity on what is necessary to get them out. This is probably a very controversial statement that can lend to atrocities like loan conditionalities (which I am a HUGE citiquer of in their historical manifestations) but I also think that immediacy can mar objectivity in any of us. That is the human condition. So we need to work together. It is more the understanding and the purpose of those involved that matter. As a white person, if I immerse myself in understanding and come with humility and a sense of purpose that is for those who need help and not in helping myself or my own world views (eg increasing market access for my country’s businesses or even just pushing particular market systems) then I do not understand what it matters whAt colour/race/nationality I am.

    Aidwatch offers a lot in terms of critical responses to important issues, but I also think you are consistently arrogant, self-righteous and lacking in a balanced approach that builds dialogue for constructively moving forward, which I would assume is something you would rather do (as opposed to what I think you do – which is mobilize self-righteous cynicism).

    Posted April 17, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  4. Ana wrote:

    Another aspect to like in the hips-don’t-lie approach is that it avoids generating dependence. The community takes part, the benefits of the aid are in the humans (investment in human capital) AND she doesn’t not try to substitute the government. I don’t know how well the schools would work after they are donated to the government, but at least she want’s them to be in charge.

    Posted April 17, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  5. Homira wrote:

    Dear Bill and Laura,

    I do NOT think that “you are consistently arrogant, self-righteous and lacking in a balanced approach that builds dialogue for constructively moving forward” AT ALL. That’s really harsh. I don’t know where this Karis dude is coming from, but you have created a critical niche that others may be jealous of, and sometimes you’re wrong, but not arrogant or self-righteous. And you’re always open to discussion when people disagree. Jeez….and Shakira’s doing good work too.

    Posted April 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  6. karis wrote:

    Agreed, consistently is probably too harsh a term, but I think “often” is fair. I do think they close doors to dialogue often enough. Anything in extremes and with too much sarcasm lends to this. And you are right – they do open up on discussion, but I also think when you talk in extremes, you often close yourself off to being approached.

    And Homira – I emphasized they had a critical perspective that is in great need. My point was more on the presentation and the tendency towards mockery. It’s amusing if you agree, but if you don’t, it’s somewhat alienating. My two cents.

    Posted April 17, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  7. avam wrote:

    Like many posters/readers I too am sick of the whole celebrity-aid-involvement thing as a pathway to actual substantial change (the most recent debacle being the Lindsay Lohan child trafficking involvement – which was particularly ironic, given ms lohan is clearly is in need of some serious parenting herself). However, I think a distinction should be made in terms of what Is celebrity-aid involvement. The Clooney/Jolie/Penn/Farrow angle – where actors with briefing on a subject (‘amped’ up with a fly-in visit so they can actually ‘experience’ a few days of ‘real’ poverty/conflict etc.,) has made no change to the complex issues in said areas of involvement. And, as Karis notes it is also down to NGOs etc allowing such individuals an automatic entrance into arenas where they are actually listened to as some sort of expert (Jolie as a member of the CFR!?) “or given too much authority (ms Jolie participating in the UN and the WEF comes to mind).”

    However, I think what Shakira is doing is a completely different thing – she is donating to her Local community in the same way as a wealthy philanthropist would in the west (or elsewhere). As far as it appears there are no conditionalities tied into the building of the school, and in any case as a Columbian, building in her hometown it seems unlikely anything but a positive could come to this (assuming she is not building on land used for other purposes etc). According to the WSJ “in 1996, Shakira started investing her own financial resources to reverse this trend. Her Barefoot Foundation began “very small, writing checks for orphanages.” At the time she was 18” – that is impressive by any definition. It might not be as ‘wow’ to the general public as Ms. Jolie’s “work” (I’m using that term loosely!) with refugees – but it has, to all appearances thus far, made an actual impact. I also think that Natalie Portman’s quiet behind-the-scenes involvement with FINCA shouldn’t be derided.

    The problem – with much of the celebrity-involvement – is that the areas where actors (or indeed any individual – famous or not) with no experience should LEAST be involved (let alone listened to as some sort of expert – in either an academic/theoretical Or practical sense) is regarding the, usually, extremely deep-seated, historical, socio-cultural and constantly changing issues to do with conflict, poverty, livelihoods etc – as tied to conflict/lack of civil society/governing institutions etc.

    Where they – and any engaged (not to mention wealthy) individual Can, in my opinion, do some good – local involvement in areas they Do know – (music, sports, theatre) or, in Shakira’s case – re-building in home communities – is usually glossed over as not as worthy of comment.

    In any case, in my opinion Shakira shouldn’t really be labeled with the catch-all celebrity tag, but as an engaged and generous member of her own community. Although – I would agree with the point made by Wren Elhai for areas outside of Columbia.

    (ps – re my comment above about not being involved in complex issues – clearly everyone has to start somewhere – but like most of us here – my point is that usually begins with advanced degrees to fully understand the subject at least from the outset, and then incrementally more involvement with said issue.)

    Posted April 18, 2010 at 4:21 am | Permalink
  8. kimb wrote:

    Karis: totally agree and glad someone said it so well. It’s the tenor of the debate and frequent mockery of other ideas that stymies discussion and frankly puts me off, despite the ostensibly open forum. Not just this site but others of its ilk. Lots of terrific ideas and important checks and critiques of the aid industry, but sometimes comes off as mean spirited and condescending. I’ve wondered sometimes why some people are even working in the field if they are so patently and vehemently disappointed with it. (esp with reespect to the spoof site HRI)

    Posted April 18, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  9. piolon wrote:

    I forgot to mention Juanes, a national and international superstar pop singer (in the same league as Shakira), who has advocated permanently and strongly against violence. Fundacion Por mi Sangre ( ). His work has a big component in anti-landmine programs (In Colombia of course), yet internationally he holds a UN ambassador status for something similar (I think peace). His strong activism against violence – of for peace if you will – proposes concrete solutions to our violence, which he believes (as many here in the usa do too) ought to begin with a different, honest and progressive approach to the stupid war on drugs.

    ps1: Probably Professor Easterly, a celebrity himself (I did not said that), and Shakira, Juanes and others have the same good intentions: max aid’s ROI (with the returns going to the beneficiaries, meaning that aid benefits the poor and the needy in an efficient and effective manner). Shakira and Juanes are searchers because they found specific solutions to specific problems, using both their own cash and leveraging their noble initiatives with their popularity. Big kuddos for both.

    ps2: Juan Pablo Montoya has a charity for the promotion of sports and education: Funadacion Formula Sonrisas ( ). I have heard great things about him, not only coming from his wonderful foundation.

    ps3: Camilo Villegas (PGA superstar golfer) has his charity also that focuses social development and kids in colombia, as all of the above

    ps4: two MLB Superstars, both double gold glove holders Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera, have their things too. Promoting, as all of the above, social development (mainly education!!) in the Colombian caribbean region. Team Renteria: & Fundación Orlando Cabrera. Both also have disbursed big donations to other foundations (as all of the above).

    ps5: culture of celeb involvement in development traces back to carlos vives and pibe valderrama (probably more but I was not alive and/or aware).

    You gotta love COLOMBIA (with an O).

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 2:13 am | Permalink
  10. avam wrote:

    Re Kimb: I would agree that the tone of aidwatch can, at times, be (or seem to be?) overly dismissive of views not in line with the main post. And that this can lessen the opportunity for dialogue. I have pointed this out – as have quite a few others. Although to be fair to Easterly/Aid Watch, from a past post it seems that he is not looking to provide a leader role per se…

    In any case, my query was really with your comment that “I’ve wondered sometimes why some people are even working in the field if they are so patently and vehemently disappointed with it. (esp with respect to the spoof site HRI)”. I disagree – does everyone have to have the same view of what works (or sense of humour) to work in development? Isn’t that a bit closed-minded? Int development is a pretty broad field – given that it encapsulates everything from anthropology, international relations, geography, economics, law, political science, engineering, medicine etc.. – to take on board issues ranging from aid to human rights, poverty to rural livelihoods, seed technology to governance, conflict resolution to repatriation to a myriad of other areas, with people working in research, mapping, human resources, logistics, planning, policy, project management, information technology to programme development (etc). As it includes academics to practitioners and those that do a little of both – not to mention differences in age, gender, experience and background (culture, religion, race, nationality, ethnicity, language etc) – I think to expect that everyone should have the same approach to what works (let alone have the same sense of humour!) is unrealistic. Surely for best practice (or at least hopes for better outcomes) within development discourse all opinions, even “disappointed” ones – should be allowed. Isn’t such ‘openness’ basically what you say is needed to keep a dialogue going?

    I don’t agree with some of the views posted – but I usually learn a little bit about how they have come to that view (as most posters mention a bit of background). I’ve got to say I’ve found it pretty interesting – and helpful in terms of looking at some issues in a different light.

    Re HRI: on the (positive) post by aid watch some months back, if I recall, most people (incl myself) already knew of, and liked, HRI. But, if not liking HRI equates with not being fit to work in development – I think that’s a tad ridiculous.

    Anyway – just my two cents worth.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 6:54 am | Permalink
  11. “Remember when you critique voices of contention on local knowledge that most of aidwatch is white and western.”

    -I am black and African and I approve this blog.

    That is all.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  12. Anne wrote:

    Karis – I think you make a great point about “being white”… It’s fun and easy to make fun of white people (fun bc ‘they’ are often so ridiculous the way they try to appropriate ‘local cultures’ in goofy ways or reveal how out-of-touch they are with rural cultures) and it’s easy bc they are perceived to have the power anyway so they couldn’t possibly be hurt by a bit of joking. Also, they’re outsiders.

    However, racism in devt is useless. Bc for every “white” you mock, there are tons with amazing backgrounds, nuanced worldviews, and genuine care for poor people. And for every visionary “black African” leader, you get tons of racist and severely classist African aid workers that often couldn’t give a hoot about their fellow national that is “beneath them”. I truly believe it comes down to values at the individual level….so enough with the generalizations – they just don’t explain enough. There are no good guys and bad guys!

    Pause and recall the lesson behind the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    Yes, inappropriate outside knowledge/intervention has made things often go awry – but things wouldn’t necessarily go right in its absence either.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  13. Anne wrote:

    Also, gotta say, I love HRI – it’s so raw and brutal and subtle at the same time. I think if Aidwatchers was the Simpsons of aid-satire, then HRI is definitely the South Park!

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

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    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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