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Are celebrities good for development aid?

by Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte

Recent New York Times coverage of Madonna’s “Raising Malawi” school project has once again drawn attention to the role celebrities play in raising awareness and funds for international aid. But at the same time, the report—which chronicled the collapse of Madonna’s poorly-managed venture—brings negative exposure to “good causes” for Africa.

There was a similar case in January, when an Associated Press story on corruption in The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was picked up by 250 media outlets worldwide with headlines such as “Fraud plagues global health fund backed by Bono.” Would the media spread with such great interest a story of lavish spending in any run-of-the-mill private school in Malawi or of corruption in the United Nations? Probably not.

The Global Fund is now known as “celebrity backed,” and almost no news story of the recent corruption saga has been without reference to Irish rock star Bono and celebrity philanthropist Bill Gates. Celebrities draw attention and stir emotion. But now, the opportunity to link development aid mismanagement or lavish spending with global celebrities has led to negative publicity.  People all over the world are interested in what is happening to “Bono’s Fund” or “Madonna’s Malawi.” Yet, as is often the case with celebrity-driven media, the stories actually provide little information on what is going on in The Global Fund or in the countries where it works, or in the education sector in Malawi.

We explore this phenomenon in Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World (just released by the University of Minnesota Press).  In the book, we examine what happens when aid celebrities unite with branded products and a cause. The resulting combination—what we call “Brand Aid”—is aid to brands because it helps sell products and builds the ethical profile of a brand. It is also a re-branding of aid as efficient and innovative, based on “commerce, not philanthropy.”

In the case study of Product (RED), a co-branding initiative launched in 2006 by Bono, we show how celebrities are trusted to guarantee that products are “good.” Iconic brands such as Apple, Emporio Armani, Starbucks and Hallmark donate a proportion of profits from the sale of RED products to The Global Fund to finance HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa. In essence, aid celebrities are asking consumers to “do good” by buying iconic brands to help “distant others” —Africans affected by AIDS. This is very different from “helping Africa” by buying products actually made by Africans, in Africa, or by choosing products that claim to have been made under better social, labour and environmental conditions of production.

In Product (RED), celebrities are moving attention away from “conscious consumption” (based on product information) and towards “compassionate consumption” (based on emotional appeal). To us, this is even more problematic than the risk of negative media attention that celebrities bring to development aid.

Lisa Ann Richey is professor of development studies at Roskilde University. Stefano Ponte is senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. To read more, see their book Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Join the conversation on Facebook or on Twitter: @BrandAid_World


This entry was posted in Academic research, Aid policies and approaches, Badvocacy and celebs. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Well, you’ve certainly raised my awareness on this issue. I’d always assumed that any cause, backed by a celebrity, was being helped by the surrounding publicity.

    Obviously, from reading your article, this is not the case. The simple process of giving financial help to the needy is getting more and more complicated.

    It’s really sad that such a kind act as giving can, through bad publicity, be turned around and actually make it harder for those who need help to receive aid.

    Posted April 4, 2011 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  2. That’s a really interesting way to frame it: compassionate vs. conscious, and it certainly resonates with the turn American culture has taken these days. (not so sure about other western places)…So many people get their emotional fixes vicariously, through their TV’s….

    So, these funds stir these emotions, Hollywood style, sometimes even with a soundtrack I imagine. People consume the Hollywood movie version of ‘what’s wrong with the world’ and then think they are ‘doing something’ by buying a certain product, which, ironically, perpetuates (it seems to me) the economic disparity between the west and the rest of the world. Huh.

    Bread and circuses (she says weightily). I’ll put the book on my wish list.

    Posted April 4, 2011 at 4:03 am | Permalink
  3. D. Hilson wrote:

    Personally, I think the celebrities take away from your cause and add to their own.

    Posted April 4, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  4. Carol wrote:

    Nice post, I think you raise really good points. Resonates with a bit of soul searching I did in a piece I called “Bewilde(red)” a few years back; saying basically that aid-as-charity is not really the supreme solution, framing it with the MLK quote: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Thanks for posting this.

    Posted April 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  5. Chike wrote:

    On the balance celebrities are good for the publicity and publicity brings money.

    My few thoughts here.

    I have a perception that the aid discourse is dominated by two groups – celebrities and academics. Celebrities are very much at home with publicity whilst academics seek opportunities to analyse problems, publish papers and write books.

    I am not hearing that much on this topic from business people and managers. This is strange, because if the West has anything it has competent business people.

    Please am I wrong?

    Posted April 4, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  6. ewaffle wrote:


    I wouldn’t say that you are wrong, but as a manager in the West (United States) I will say that the competence of business people here is quite overrated.

    Posted April 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  7. Tom Cushman wrote:

    here is a link to a post about celebrity and business

    Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:54 am | Permalink
  8. Chike wrote:

    Tony Cushman,

    Bono is not a businessman, so his success or failure does not validate or invalidate anything. No serious African business person considers Bono a role model. In fact, I wonder what African audience you are referring to.

    Business is best left for the professionals and there are many African success stories. Please google “Dangote” and “Innoson”.

    Posted April 5, 2011 at 3:29 am | Permalink
  9. John Rougeux wrote:

    Could the author elaborate on why “compassionate consumption” (based on emotional appeal) would come at the expense of “conscious consumption” (based on product information)?

    Instead of one cannibalizing the other, I think that each approach would cater to a different type of consumer. Some will find that a more rational approach to tying causes to purchases will appeal to them more (like buying 7th Generation detergent), and others will find the an emotional message resonates more deeply with them (like the celebrity endorsements you write about).

    To me, this simply sounds more like marketing catered to different audiences. When target marketing is done well, it should increase the total share of cause-related purchases, not necesssarily shift from one type to another.

    Posted April 5, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  10. The problem that I see, John Rougeux, is that approaches like Project Red don’t really encourage conscious consumption. Or, rather, they make people think they are being conscientious when they may actually be adding to the problem. They relieve the impetus to become conscious consumers.

    Posted April 5, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink
  11. Tom Cushman wrote:

    Dear Chike
    I agree with you Bono isnt much of a businessman. In fact his wife agrees that he is very lucky in that he doesnt have to deal with the realities of his RED business. The writer of the blog I linked to doesnt think he is much of a businessman.
    That doesnt mean that RED and EDUN havent done business as they worked in Madagascar, Zambia, Uganda and elsewhere to source organic cotton for their t-shirts and produce their clothes. Projects that have not gone well. When a celebrity non businessman starts to do business or get others worked up about business and doesnt carry through he doesnt suffer when the project fails. The counterparties on the ground do though and “once bitten twice shy” comes to mind.
    There are plenty of top top businessmen from Africa. A “one in a million man” is outstanding no matter where he/she is from. In my country with 20 Mn population there must be 20 of them. Sadly most of them have chosen to go to work with International NGO’s or civil service rather than commerce.
    You are very fortunate to live and work in an Anglophone, Common Law country with a sizable population, internal market, natural resources and a coastline.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 1:55 am | Permalink
  12. Matthew Kelly wrote:

    I think that celebrities are good for aid when it is does the right way for the right reasons. They usually have money that can make an immediate impact on which every development aid group they want to help. But celebrities can also be bad for the business when aid help is mishandled or if they don’t know what they are doing. I think when celebrities want to help they should hirer people who are more like “seekers” to help them make sound decisions.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 3:29 am | Permalink
  13. Laura wrote:

    I think that celebrities can either be beneficial or harmful to development/aid programs. And what we really need to change is just how they get involved. I don’t believe that celebrities should try to start their own aid programs or things like this. My main reason being that they probably don’t have a lot or enough knowledge on what they are really doing. I think it’s a really good idea for celebrities though to be attached or linked with already existing programs. In this way the program would already be up and running, the kinks would be worked out, and people who truly understand what is going on and where aid should really go would manage the program itself. If a celebrity is linked with a particular program than they can work to help receive funds. Not only could the celebrity donate large amounts of money (and they probably would since they know it would make them look good), but it would also entice a lot of others to donate. Most probably wouldn’t deny that if their favorite actress is asking for money to a cause they are involved in, that they wouldn’t say, “Okay, yeah I can donate at least a bit.” This could also get information out about agencies that many may not even know exist.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  14. Chike wrote:

    Tony Cushman,

    You wrote: “You are very fortunate to live and work in an Anglophone, Common Law country with a sizable population, internal market, natural resources and a coastline.”

    I have never heard Nigeria being referred to in such complimentary terms. I am flattered. This contradicts the horror stories spewed out from EVERY major Western embassy on an almost daily basis as “security reports”.

    My World has been turned upside down.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  15. Jacob AG wrote:

    Your post was very interesting, and I look forward to reading “Brand Aid.” But in defense of the Global Fund, lest any readers misunderstand:

    1) This corruption amounts to a whopping .03% of the Fund’s total disbursements.

    2) The “corruption” within the Global Fund was not discovered by enterprising journalists, but by… wait for it… the Global Fund. That’s right, the office of the Fund’s own Inspector-General pored through tens of thousands of documents to find the dang corruption, which had sailed completely over the heads of the Associated Press until the Fund gave them the opportunity to report on it, to call it “massive,” and to say it “plagued” the Fund. Thanks a lot, AP!

    3) The Fund–not journalists, not bloggers, but the Fund–had already suspended the mishandled funds before even one media outlet got so much as a whiff of the story. Thanks again, AP!

    4) How many millions of lives has the Fund saved? Does anyone even dispute that it’s in the millions?

    Corruption kills, don’t get me wrong, but let’s not throw any babies out with the bathwater.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  16. Lisa and Stefano wrote:

    Jacob AG,
    We are actually in agreement with your comment that defends the Global Fund in this case– even though we critique the Fund for a variety of different reasons in our Brand Aid book. We argue that the most recent scandal relates to the implications of ‘celebritization’ of the Fund, not to what the Fund actually did. We have blogged on this here-
    in English

    And published here in Danish

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  17. Lisa and Stefano wrote:

    John Rougeux,
    A similar debate is going on in relation to whether cause-related marketing (CRM) generates funds that are additional to other charity contributions or whether it detracts from them. The general assumption from CRM supporters is that CRM contributions are additional, but recent studies are starting to question that premise (see Similarly, we can not assume that compassionate consumption actually targets new or different consumers in addition to those who would be making ethical consumption choices without the RED option. Actually, adding an easy way of ‘doing good by shopping well’ (compassionate consumption) may overshadow the demand for improving the conditions of production and trade for the products we actually already buy from Africa (and elsewhere).

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  18. James Michael wrote:

    When celebrities help developing countries through campaigns such as Product (RED), let’s remember the intentions are good. I admire celebrities who give aid to countries in need especially when they don’t headline on CNN every week so the whole world knows they are (we get it). My only problem here is, yes, Product (RED) is benefiting Western business, not the overall African economy, but what African company sells MP3 devices, laptops or gift cards? I guess if a celebrity really wants to help a developing country they should promote African businesses to the West.

    Posted April 8, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink
  19. Katie Braden wrote:

    Although I agree that celebrities do not always help in the best way possible, doesn’t the mantra “everyone does better when everyone does better” apply in this case? Mandy Moore’s urge to give money for mosquito nets in Africa or TOMS sending shoes instead of food to children in countries in need may not be the most important types of aid. But isn’t any good deed, in essense, good? People help in ways that they can, whether it is giving time, money, or a voice. I have a hard time believing that the children in Nicaragua who now have shoes are ungrateful for them.

    Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  20. Matt wrote:

    I definitely think that celebrities can be beneficial or harmful to such programs. They can help make the program more inticing just by simply using their name. They can also probably raise more money if people know and like who they are. The problems I see with celebrities is what if people don’t like them or they misrepresent themselves. That could hurt the program as a whole. I do think celebrities need help and “behind the scenes” people to aid them in knowledge and understanding of the program they support. This would help them represent the program better. I’ll end that I believe that celebrities should just be used as an icon of the program and not come across as the founder of it.

    Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  21. William wrote:

    I think that it is impossible to deny the fact that celebrities hold great power to create change. They have publicity, they have money, and they have a fan base that will follow their every word of advice, this is great power. All of this mixed with their good intentions could be unstoppable, but it is stoppable, and fails over and over again. I suppose their failure comes from the fact that they rely on themselves and the ideas they have, rather than getting on the ground with the searchers and trying to understand the real needs of the local people. If this were done they would be able to work on ways to help establish different means of monetary gain for the local people. For instance, they could help to establish a technical education for adults teaching them how to make particular items such as shoes, scarves, clothes etc. that could be sold. So now, they have some sort of education, aren’t relying on awful means of monetary support such as prostitution, bringing dignity back to some lives that feel they have lost it. Once this money begins to be pumped back into the local economy change can happen. The celebrities have to worry about what will help the people in the developing world, rather than focus on what the citizens of the US or Europe think will be beneficial there.

    Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  22. Josh wrote:

    Hm, I think that cause marketing is just a way for the corporations to enslave us into a life of servitude. Or at least to provide cover for the real issues. I think these kinds of campaigns cheapen the activity of doing good, since they require no sacrifice on the part of the consumer and increase profitability for the company. I have followed up on my own blog:

    Posted April 9, 2011 at 3:01 am | Permalink
  23. Josh wrote:

    By the way, this is too bad:

    Fund raisers have long worried about a possible downside to corporate-charity marketing deals—that people who buy a special brand of yogurt or computer or stuffed animal because a retailer promises to give a small percentage of the purchase price to a good cause will figure they have met their charitable obligation and not give as much in direct donations.

    It turns out the worries are warranted, according to new research from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

    Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  24. Alex Jacobs wrote:

    More on what happened to Madonna’s missing millions in Malawi:

    This time, it really was disastrous. 100% of Madonna’s $3.8m reported as going down the plug hole, due to her & her fellow directors’ shocking lack of oversight. All the gain went to Madonna’s brand; Malawians didn’t get the fancy academy they were promised – worse, they lost land where they grew food.

    This stinks of development as a designer accessory, at its worst.

    Posted April 11, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  25. wes j wrote:

    Your article is very interesting Guest Blogger. When such topics are debated it is hard to say who is right and who is wrong but you do bring up very good points to your argument. Indeed I do believe that celebrities do donate to charities for a better image. Also large donations to charitable organizations do help when the IRS comes around in April. Where your argument doesn’t hold any weight is when you imply that people will start buying products based on guilt and “compassionate consumption.” People will buy what they can afford these days and if you can afford the brand name then by all means buy it. Not only is a portion of that profit going to the Ivory Coast for development needs but it’s also Project (Red) is one more step closer to providing a large push for development aid that is needed to actually achieve stability throughout the region.
    I guess what people are having a problem with in this case of aid assistance is that it’s being done in a negative light because when you talk about who is actually providing the assistance you realize that those people are gaining from the situation. This just doesn’t seem right when talking about assisting other people. Whether or not it is profit from the actual assistance or it’s to avoid taxes and better one’s image, aid is something that isn’t compassionately done just to do it. If this were the case every project attempted would fail due to lack of continuous funding. Yes this does sound very cenacle and yes ultimately its people’s main goal to provide aid to the needy but this will not come at the expense of the people that are providing that aid. Project Red is trying introduce a balance between aid for the needy, advertisement, and profit for the people and private corporations that are providing the aid. This combination or one like it is a big time solution that not only should economist and world leaders take into consideration but philanthropist as well.

    Posted April 11, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  26. Brandon J wrote:

    Celebrities seem to have their hearts in the right place when “endorsing” certain non-profits and other NGOs,but that’s not enough. I think a way that celebrities can help protect themselves from getting involved with ill-managed attempts at aid,like Madonna and Bono, they should spend more time researching these organizations before signing on. Also while in the process of researching celebrities should take the time to go and examine the fruit of these organizations’ labor, if any, because actions shed light on what words try to cover up.

    Posted April 11, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  27. Graham Simmons wrote:

    : Celebrities do draw attention to a particular cause they are supporting but the affect on the people receiving the aid appears to be negative. By putting a celebrity as the face for a cause attention is drawn to the celebrity and away from those in need. I think donors may choose to donate to a particular cause because if a celebrity is doing it then they think it must be a worthy cause. Businesses also have their names attached to certain philanthropic causes. By purchasing a certain product then a portion of the profit will be donated to the certain cause or so they say. I think this is much more of a marketing tool to sell products while also boosting the company’s image for compassion. It is not necessarily the case that all celebrity’s or businesses with their name attached to cause create ineffective aid but it points to what I see as a larger issue. The main point to take away from this article is to donate to aid projects but do your own research about the issue, it makes the donor more connected and makes the aid donated more effective. Don’t just give because your favorite actor is giving or so you can feel better by buying a product that supposedly helps some far away cause.

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  28. Lisa and Stefano wrote:

    Thanks for your good advice to all of us to get close to your causes. Celebrities allow us to remain distant, yet feel close to the recipients of our desire to ‘do good.’ By shifting the focus of global do-gooding away from the causes of poverty and toward mopping up afterward, celebritized aid is not merely an oversimplification. It is a way of persuading Western consumers that we can have as much as we want, without depriving anyone else, and there is no need to share. Low-cost heroism actually costs us a lot.

    Posted April 14, 2011 at 7:13 pm | 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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