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Over glamorization of development work may backfire. Low Hansiong

Do we really need another Bono?

Low Hansiong >> TOC International

We have all seen a scene like this: global ‘star’ fights through the paparazzi throng to get into his uber-luxurious limousine, flies decadent class in a private jet, descends down the rickety dust-ridden airstairs while waving glamorously to their fawning fans behind a pair of Giorgio Armani sunshades.

All of which is nicely choreographed for the altruistic purpose of sustainable development or combating AIDS or whatever fashionable catchall we have now. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bono. His music is roll-rockingly awesome and he is a true champion for the underprivileged. However, my moot is that Bono might have done his job too well. He made development too cool.

It’s not the Bonos that I contend with; it is the wannabe Bonos that scare the living daylights out of me. We have the Angelina Jolies flying to some destitute part of Africa, sending the message that just by planting a tree here and there, and by stroking the faces of some children, it will somehow all be better. Then we have our Madonnas, who think that by adopting children from all over the lesser developed countries, it will somehow all be better.

Sure, the conventional school would think that ‘stars’ are better able to market the cause, raise awareness and, wait for it, canvass more money. However, is it worth the side effects that these campaigns are creating? The MTV generation might know where Botswana is now, but at the same time, they only equate development with the poor hungry people in Africa. Young impressionable minds would also start to think that if a cause is unable to secure the celebrity endorsement, it would probably mean that the cause is not important enough.

By having celebrities champion causes also leads to an over glamorization of international development. It leads school children to think that development is all about going overseas and building that one house with their bare hands. Where in reality, the money they spent on vaccinations and travel could have built another three houses instead.

It leads to the B-listers and wannabe stars to clamor for any chances to attract publicity to revive/start their fading careers, more quid pro quo than pro Bono. Yes, it has all become a slick greasy marketing machine. How often do overseas ‘volunteers’ and celebrities follow up after their self-serving missions? More probable than not, it is confined to the backwater of their professional life.

Playing the celebrity card also leads to a watering-down of the incredibly complicated reality of the situation. After all, celebrities (most of them) are not trained to act, think and talk like a development expert. Therefore, in the end, they only serve to perpetuate the populist sentiments of vague and comforting catchphrases like “We must all serve humanity”, “The green revolution is upon our horizon”, or something to that effect.

International development is a messy, contradicting and spiteful field. While the field is full of ups and downs, having the challenges in international development packaged into a 2-minute sound bite does not do a lot to further the collective goal towards the betterment of mankind. Experts in this field have dedicated most of their adulthood in trying to come up with plausible answers to the most vexing of development questions. Imagine the chagrin from the realization that people chose to consult a 5-minute ‘expert’ to a 30 year old veteran. Would you ever ask Tom Cruise about the state of the economy just because he had a chat with Ben Bernanke?

Each of us has our own agendas and, in all fairness, there is nothing wrong with it too. There is no denying the celebrity ‘pull’; it does bring much needed publicity into the under-publicized world of sufferance. However, organizations should do better than placing their bets on such one-off stunts because in the end, you could do more harm than good for your own agenda.