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The Aid Contest of the Celebrity Exes

A high-profile charitable foundation set up to build a school for impoverished girls in Malawi, founded by the singer Madonna …has collapsed after spending $3.8 million on a project that never came to fruition…. the plans to build a $15 million school for about 400 girls in the poor southeastern African country of 15 million — which had drawn financial support from Hollywood and society circles…— have been officially abandoned.

– Madonna’s Charity Fails in Bid to Finance School, New York Times, March 24, 2011

Over a year later, [Sean] Penn is still in Haiti and his initial ragtag group of medics and fixers has grown into a team of 15 international workers, 235 Haitians and hundreds of rotating medical volunteers. In addition to coordinating sanitation, lighting, water and security for the Pétionville camp, J/P HRO runs two primary care facilities, a women’s health center, a cholera isolation unit and a 24-hour emergency room. It has pioneered a rubble removal program that has become a model for other N.G.O.’s, and it has developed one of the most effective emergency response systems in the country, using state-of-the-art bio-surveillance techniques and helicopters to reach cholera-stricken communities in remote areas.

– The Accidental Activist, New York Times Style Magazine, March 25, 2011

Why is Sean Penn doing so much better than his ex-wife? Can comparing their stories provide any lessons for aspiring celebrity humanitarians?

Round 1: The initial premise. Spending $15 million on a school for 400 girls in a country where the government education budget is only 10 times that is just a bad idea. And Madonna was slow to heed the advice of the philanthropy consulting group she hired, which, according to the Times

told her that building an expensive school in Malawi was an ineffective form of philanthropy, and suggested instead using resources to finance education programs though existing and proven nongovernmental organizations.

Sean Penn also arrived clueless, speaking neither French nor Creole nor NGOese. However, according to the NYT (Vanity Fair and CNN profiles tell a similar story), Penn at least came without preconceived notions of what to do.

Winner: Sean Penn, by a hair

Round 2: Level of  cluelessness about operations of own charity. While Madonna visited Malawi for some photo ops, she wasn’t involved in the day-to-day operation of the project. From the Times: “She and her aides offered no explanation of why, given her high interest in the project, she had not noticed the problems as they began unfolding.” In contrast, Sean Penn appears totally hands-on, living in Haiti and learning by doing:

“For the first six months, I …was basically pretending I knew what the hell I was doing — yelling a lot and getting things done with blackmail. Now I’ve got a lot of really experienced, great people around me, and they can do the same things, cutting through stuff just as fast, but in slightly more, uh, legitimate ways.”

Winner: Sean Penn (minus points for strong-arming…but bonus for adaptability??)

Round 3: Wasteful spending. A Raising Malawi project audit revealed “outlandish expenditures on salaries, cars, office space and a golf course membership, free housing and a car and driver for the school’s director.” None of those perks for Sean Penn and his staff, who spent 2010 sleeping in tents (like most NGO workers in Haiti, but never mind) and “prides himself on running a lean operation.”

Winner: Sean Penn

So Sean Penn emerges as the clear victor here. But if what Madonna’s charity did wrong was obvious, what Penn has done right is still unproven. It’s admittedly a stretch to derive any serious aid lessons from a 3,000-word New York Times Magazine Style profile, and I am not aware of any serious evaluation of Penn’s project. But if it holds up to greater scrutiny, let the aid battle of the celebrity Exes be a lesson – and a warning – to the next generation of celebrity do-gooders.


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  1. Matt Muspratt wrote:

    The other “contest” waged in these two NYT stories is: Which journalist can quote or discuss the fewest Haitians/Malawians in a story about Haiti/Malawi?

    It’s a tie — essentially zero.

    Both these articles are examples of what I’d call “erasure journalism” — the practice of eliminating Africans/Haitians from their homes and landscapes (i.e. from their stories) and replacing them with Westerners. This kind of reporting strips Africans/Haitians of any character and agency (something Karen Rothmyer alluded to in her recent Shorenstein/CJR pieces on the NGO/media nexus).

    I try to expound a bit more on this at:

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  2. joe wrote:

    I dunno, I suppose Madonna deserves some brownie points for a) having a better name and b) wasting her own money rather than a load of other people’s.

    Which is better? Who cares? Can’t they both be bad and not meet the standard for #goodaid?

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  3. Daniel ONeil wrote:

    We work with the JPHRO in the Delmas neighborhood. I agree that Sean was clueless when he arrived. However, unlike Madona, he spent the time to learn the systems. He spends a good deal of time in Haiti, he participated in those crazy cluster meetings. He has made himself into an expert on camps in Haiti. To me that is the critical difference. The fact that JPHRO continues to operate on a shoe string is not important. The fact that they (clearly led by Sean personally) have become effective in their work is.

    To me, there is no contest. Sean is one of the heroes of the earthquake response.

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink
  4. I’ve worked for many years with the leaders of Eye of the Child, Malawi’s leading child rights advocacy organization, which led the civil society charge for an injunction against both of Madonna’s adoptions. Though they were not successful in preventing the adoptions, they have been incredibly successful in forging closer ties with government officials to support them to navigate tricky donor relations with such funders and foundations as Madonna’s, as well as to reform Malawi’s contradictory laws governing adoption and child protection.

    I’m glad the Kabbalah Foundation is finally admitting to its failures and squandered millions, but beyond the celebrity, there is another story to take notice of–the behind-the-scenes persistence, vision, and impact of the local leaders and organizations who are working to solve their own country’s problems, on their own terms.

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  5. Sarah wrote:

    When I visited JPHRO (or whatever Penn’s org is) in Haiti, the “Women’s Health Clinic” was giving vinegar water douches to women, had no access to emergency contraception or PEP and did not know that a MSF clinic that had the capacity to respond with full fledged state of the art medical treatment to rape survivors was just a 10 minute walk away. Yet they released a press release proclaiming that they offered 24 hour treatment for survivors. I think Sean Penn splurged on press release writers and Madonna skimped. While Penn may have done some good things, he also promotes his org a LOT and claims credit for lots of things that upon closer examination are not there.

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  6. Marieme Jamme wrote:

    The reality is the people that will suffer from Madonna’s stubbornness and lack of humility is the people of Malawi.
    I have been writing about celebrities doing harm in Africa for long time now, and I predicted this to happen to Madonna as again she does not understand Malawi and how things work in the country.
    They come with plenty of money assuming that it will resolve all the issues. Clearly they don’t get it and one must stop them. Madonna needs guidance on how Africa works.

    Posted March 31, 2011 at 5:11 am | Permalink
  7. muhamad wrote:

    Good intention sometimes result Negative impact, Road to “Hell” full with bed of roses

    Posted March 31, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  8. Mr. Econotarian wrote:

    In a country whose GDP per capita is under $1000, how can you spend $3.8 million and NOT build a school. You should be able to buy a huge amount of land and hire thousands of workers. Let me guess, government regulations?

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

8 Trackbacks

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