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Celebrities and aid: Will hunger strike hard enough?

6 May

Hollywood actor Mia Farrow is now in the tenth day of her hunger strike in protest for the refugees of Darfur, whose lives have been put at risk by the Sudanese government through Omar al-Bashir’s expulsion of aid agencies from the region, including Oxfam UK and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Hunger strikes aren’t a new form of protest against government regimes and have been employed by Mahatma Gandhi to the suffragettes.

But to what extent will Farrow’s efforts along with celebrity status help in raising awareness for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur?

So far, 75 people have signed up on her website Mia Farrow.org to join her fast. An ambassador for Unicef, she has been a high profile activist for Darfur since 2005.

Scepticism is inevitable.

Khaled al-Mubarak at the Sudanese embassy in London told the Guardian: “She is a good actress and a good human being, but as a politician she is only a beginner. She is like George Clooney, who has also got involved in the Darfur question. He is good looking but ignorant. She is ignorant too.”

Picture: miafarrow.org

Picture: miafarrow.org

Indeed, Farrow herself is also aware that her attempts may be in vain. She told reporters before she began:

“I’m not presuming anybody will care whether I starve to death or whether I go on a long hunger strike or what. But it’s a personal matter.”

With the now ubiquitous role of of the western celebrity ever more frequent in aid, their efficacy and even motives are under scrutiny… Whose profile are they trying to raise – the country in crisis or their own? Their faces are icons of modernisation – why not get global recognition with a deep and meaningful reality check thrown in.. adopt a cute black kid while at it?

In a London conference in February, Professor John Street, who dubs it ‘charitainment’, quoted the Washington Post, which seriously reported in coverage of Angelina Jolie in Darfur that she was ‘monitoring the crisis’ there.

The western media has to put its hands up when it comes to covering development issues from a charitainment angle. Journalist, Ann McFerran said in London that whilst getting “privileged access” to celebrities, she is better equipped to get an unsexy issue such as infant mortality in Sierra Leone into the press if David Beckham was on board.

Of course you’ll raise your profile as a celeb getting involved in aid, but what harm can that do if it is getting an issue in the mainstream media? Is ‘branding’ today’s NGO the way forward?

MoyoMSF’s Kris Torgeson said the water crisis in Angola would “never have got half an hour on MTV” if it wern’t for rapper Jay-Z involved.

But, Zambian economist and author of the controversial Dead Aid,  Dambisa Moyo, says it’s all ‘glamour aid’:

 “Long, long lines of people [in Africa] have stood in the sun to vote for a president who is effectively impotent because of donors or because glamour aid has decided to speak on behalf of a continent.

How would British people feel if tomorrow Michael Jackson started telling them how they should get out of the housing crisis?”

Here she speaks at the Carnegie Council:


The stark contrast of a pampered celebrity stood in a sea of black faces paints a dire picture of Africa. Moyo says there should me more emphasis on the positive.

Meanwhile, Farrow toils on..

You can listen to the full LSE conference featuring John Street, Ann McFerran and MSF here: Celebrities and aid: Humanitarians or just another fad?

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Twitter and malaria bednets

20 Apr

The online world is fast becoming a platform for cyber activism – but can you make a difference in just 140 characters?

My last post looked at NGOs using Twitter. During the last week, the social networking site became the latest tool to raise awareness for malaria, when American actor, Ashton Kutcher, challenged the CNN network to a race to be the first to get a million followers, where the winner would donate mosquito bednets in awareness of the near approaching World Malaria Day on 25th April.

Kutcher had been posting about malaria on his Twitter feed in the run up to the race which he narrowly won.

“I just think its amazing that 1 voice can now be as powerful at an entire media network. thank you twitter!” (7:06 PM Apr 13th from web)

But this is the guy also Tweets about his wife’s behind.

The point Kutcher was trying to make, was that the power of social networking like Twitter can potentially make you as influencial as an entire media network…if you’re a high profile celebrity that is.

What was actually achieved? It wasn’t each follower that paid for the bednets, and how many of his followers actually clicked on any of the preachy malaria website links he Tweeted?

The Malaria Policy Centre thanked his efforts, but one blogger accused Kutcher for using Twitter to massage his ego.

“What you did succeed in doing is placing the focus on the wrong aspect of Twitter. Now every celeb would think ‘hey I’m more popular than Ashton, I could totally go beyond 1M.’ You’ll be lying if you say you’ll be reading each and every post from your 1M followers — just not physically possible.

Twitter’s value to me has always been the information shared from each contact. What you did succeed in doing is putting old media Hollywood thinking into Twitter, ie the bigger the audience you have, the better.”

Sure, social networking is an important media tool for development that cannot be ignored  – but through the front of  a celebrity it makes it very difficult to measure its realistic impact.

Soap operas with soul

12 Mar

Development and health campaigns always face the challenge of firstly, getting their message out to target audiences, and then sustaining that message. But what if there was a method where you could educate people indirectly?

The UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) helps fund soap operas, dubbed ‘edutainment’ in developing countries in Africa and South Asia.

‘Edutainment’

Makutano Junction is a Kenyan-produced soap also shown in Uganda and Tanzania featuring a fictional village. Every episode, broadcast in English, is watched by around seven million Kenyans, of which 50% of television owners live in rural areas.

Described as “stories that touch your heart and maybe teach you something new” DFID say “hard hitting and realistic storylines” are what makes them have the success and popularity of British soaps like Eastenders and Coronation Street from even the remotest of villages.

Storylines educate on topics including contraception, challenging corruption, malaria prevention through bednets, HIV and AIDS and giving women a voice in politics.

The soaps aim to kick off local conversation about some of the most serious health and development challenges that face the Global South.

In India, the series Jasoos Vijay aims to prevent AIDS and also change attitudes on the virus and HIV. Watched by 70 million Indians, figures show the mass audiences DFID have access to. There have also been moves to go beyond English and Hindi speakers, and the show is broadcast in Hindi and seven other regional languages. Throughout the fictional storylines are small intermissions, where experts give information on HIV prevention. It is vital as 5 million Indians are infected with HIV and AIDS and the social stigma of infection remains a factor in its spreading.

Bollywood

But Bollywood churns out more films than America, that are often based in imperialist ideals, where there are echos of Ritzer’s ‘Mcdonaldisation’ paradigm a lot of glamour involved in the clothes, music, houses and storylines – some of which are not relevant to audiences besides escapism and entertainment. It does make you wonder whether Bollywood should play an increasing role in ‘edutainment’.

Makutano Junction

Makutano Junction

Soap operas on the radio reach an even bigger audience than on the television. The Story Story radio programme is set in a Nigerian Marketplace and is recorded on location. Broadcast in English on 57 federal, state and independent partner stations as well as on the BBC World Service, which has also delivered extensive radio training to professionals in Nigeria. Versions have also been produced in the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba languages.

South Africa’s TV soap Soul City regularly reaches 16m people and has been running for over 15 years. It was originally set up by NGOs in 1994, but regular test screenings by producers to ensure they are real and relevant storylines to the audiences watching, where HIV prevention messages are central to its storylines.

It has been so successful that they are introducing a transition in to Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe and encompassing radio shows, information booklets and a spin-off show for young children (Soul Buddyz). One episode which focused on domestic abuse brought in 180,000 calls to a women’s helpline while the programme was on air.

Makutano Junction offers weekly comic leaflets

Makutano Junction offers weekly comic leaflets

‘Gritty’

Matthew Krouse, arts editor of the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, has been following Soul City since the beginning and praises it for steering away from Western television exported to South Africa, despite being sceptical at first:

“We’re saturated with crap American TV at the moment, this never-never land of beautiful people and unrealistic lives. But here we have a gritty, realistic soap with a powerful message. It’s something we can really be proud of.”

These soaps are fairly sanctimonious and preachy and don’t necessarily offer a means to put this new thinking into practice. There is the danger that the messages are so indirect that they just blend into the notion of entertainment. Viewers and listeners are also very passive, so it does echo a top-down model.

There is still the problem that these messages cannot reach those who cannot afford to purchase television sets or radios.

However entertainment is an important strategy for development and it does seem practical for regions that have an aural tradition.

Slumdog Millionaire: Westertainment?

21 Feb
Jamal Malik sees the light? Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Jamal Malik sees the light? Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Composer of Slumdog Millionaire’s score, A. R. Rahman will perform at tomorrow’s Oscars for the first time. Hollywood is on India’s news agenda and Bollywood is on the world’s, but this time it’s highlighting the plight of the thousands of children living the slum life.

With ongoing debates as to whether ‘poverty porn’ has resurfaced out-dated modernisation discourse, the success of Danny Boyle’s film has been received with mixed responses of pride, joy, frustration and a post-colonial identity crisis in India.

It has taken an 11-time Oscar nominated film to put urban slums in the spotlight. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay already looked at the country’s underbelly of street children and, amongst other awards, won the more understated Caméra d’Or at Cannes. Made in the eighties however, Mumbai was then Bombay, missing the skyscrapers which tower today’s slums present in Boyle’s panoramic shots of India.

Imperialism

New York-based journalist, Hirsh Sawhney today criticised Slumdog’s contemporary depiction of Mumbai as simplifying poverty and the West’s relationship with it. His criticism bears resemblance to those who have previously examined the shortcomings of cultural imperialism and promoting Western values as a solution to the problems of undeveloped countries.

In the Guardian’s Comment is free, he said:

“In fact, far from spreading the blame for global poverty, Boyle’s film actually suggests that the West is the solution to India’s problems. Protagonist Jamal only escapes his ceaseless cycle of squalor and crime once he makes it into the orderly, democratic world of a British call centre…The subtext is clear: things are really bad in urban India but healthy servings of western values are just what the doctor – and the Academy judges – ordered.”

Controversy

Lights Camera Action (see video here) hosted a diverse discussion panel in Houston last week on the controversies sparked by the film in India, addressing why, if the case, the Western world is obsessed with poverty porn and also begging the question – does India need an outsider (from the West) to step in before its government wakes up and smells the chai?

Bachchan criticises film for portraying India as 'third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation'

Bachchan criticises film for portraying India as 'third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation'

The economic polarity in India is portrayed the scene where Bollywood actor Amithabh Bachchan (who has also aired criticisms) by proxy, nonchalantly signs an autograph for Jamal who is literally covered head to toe in crap.

The conventional Bollywood style movie is more glitz and glamour-induced escapism than realism and the latter in this case seems to have a hit a little too close to home truths.

Western ideals

With a Jamal Malik, who goes on to speak fluent English in the latter half of the movie, takes up the chai wala job in a Western style call centre and attempts to escape the slums on a Western adopted gameshow, Indians are likely to be defensive at the thought of Western audiences criticising their nation.

Despite this we can’t forget that Boyle’s film is not a documentary. It is an entertaining love story that could almost have been shot anywhere. Films such as City of God, set in Rio have also highlighted a similar need for development. On the way however, Slumdog has reminded audiences of the slums, which can’t be swept under the rug just because it makes a prospering country look bad.