World NGO Day: 27 February 2020
Reflections on The Exploitative Celebrification of Philanthropy and the Nauseating Super Star Status of those of us who work as Poverty Relief and Development Activists - Remembering World NGO Day.
Today, 27 February 2020, is World NGO Day.
This piece is dedicated to the thousands of NGO workers, unsung but heroes none the less, unrecognized but remembered despite, and often the least and worst paid in the world but doing the work that really makes a difference to how States function and how its citizens survive.
None of you as NGO staff have attained celebrity status. And three cheers to you for that! You have worked in the trenches and no one knows your name. But it's you we have to thank for the vital work which NGOs are doing. You have avoided celebrification. You're kept it real. And many are alive today because of you. Thank you.
In the late 1990s, in 1998, I went to Mozambique around the time the war had ended and democratic elections had been held. Maputo was a city rising out of a war-induced chaos and there was a real sense of optimism all over the place. Growing from a low base, the economy was booming.
A few days later I flew up north to the Mozambican city of Nampula - a trip I did three times after this - and found myself in a city fairly blown up by the war. We were there to help the efforts underway to address the plight of war orphans and children in crisis as a result of the war.
I remember arriving and finding that all over the place the major global aid agencies were packing up and leaving. There was no post-war reconstruction programme save for a few.
It's there that I encountered this notion - the nauseating celebrification of philanthropist, poverty relief and development activists for the first time.
What is the Celebrification of Philanthropists and Poverty Relief Activists? It's when the focus is placed on the deeds of the donor or activists and the people or issues are a filler to the main story - but the main story is all about them. Not the people.
Some of the most popular celebrification stories are about those celebrities who have adopted "African refugee children". But more worrying are those activists who have made sure their efforts at Poverty Relief are turned into "efforts worthy of celebrity status".
The word “celebrification” does not exist in the English language. It’s a word I made up to indicate how philanthropy and Activism are used by some as a pathway to obtaining superstar status. It’s using the poverty of people to obtain fame, stardom and to use that stardom to advance your own interests and career.
And subtly this trend has become embedded and dare I say normative in much of what I see in philanthropy and poverty relief today.
Back to Mozambique. So around 2002 I'm back in Nampula and as I'm going to the villages around the concrete core of the city with my camera, I stumble across a group of children, black, bare-chested, perhaps around 9 - 12 year old and playing soccer on a hard gravel swathe of African earth.
The ball they were playing with caught my eye. It was a collection of plastic bags rolled into a round sphere the size of a soccer ball and then tied down with a series of strings. The match was heated and black bodies were glistening in the African sun. My arrival did not affect the game. It went on without any attention being paid to the fact that an international fan had arrived. The crowd on the sidelines also just looked briefly at me and then looked away. Soccer is important stuff.
As the game progressed I quietly slid my camera out of my backpack to take a few photographs - and especially of that iconic football.
I lifted the camera and began shooting. As the sound of the click echoed audibly onto the pitch, the guy who had the ball, ready to drive up the pitch, suddenly stopped, put his one foot on the ball and stopped the game and looked at me. He just stared at me.
There was a visible irritation on his face which caught me unawares. I was not aware of what was going on. Everyone was looking at me. I motioned to him to keep playing, and in my ten word broken Portuguese, indicated to him that he must play on, as I held the camera over my one eye. He did not move. He just stood there.
It was probably all of about 30 seconds that passed between us up to this point. My camera. His eyes.
And then it hit me. Loud and explosively clear.
This young man, on behalf of his team, the sideline fans, his village, but more so deep from the centre of his being, was telling me: "go ahead, take your picture. Get done. We have an important game to play. Take your picture. Go show it to your donors. Tell them the story you wish to tell. And get the money that this picture will make for your organization. Go use this picture and become a celebrity. But here's my truth to you and your camera: none of that money will ever reach me nor change my life, as it will only change yours and make you famous.”
I left without the picture I really wanted. My finger could not press that shutter for that picture.
Poverty relief is big business. Millions, no billions of dollars, have turned ordinary activists into celebrities. Our pictures next to starving children. Next to dead rhinos. Next to burn victims. Next to suffering families. And suddenly people see us, the activists, more than what they see the issues we are supposed to highlight. We have inserted ourselves, uninvited, into the central story.
The world fawns over the celebrity who adopted two or three or four children from Africa. There's no question their lives have been improved stratospherically in economic terms. Time will tell what their adult lives will be like. But here's the thing: no one remembers the village they came from. No one knows whether their village had survived. No one knows what happened to the other children in the same village and in the same orphanage they were taken from.
No plan was made to create an intelligent, sustainable longterm solution for the crisis that caused this in the first place. We saved four children. The cameras clicked. The international media went wild for the story. We did good. We feel good. But thousands remained behind. Unchanged. No one told the story of the ones left behind. No one remembers any of them.
And so donors get captured by that embedded practice. And soon celebrities follow. And soon glamorous events follow. And the conferences follow. These are essentially a gathering of self-proclaimed celebrities patting each other on the back and ensuring you that you have a really cool "celebrity story" to tell the audience. Its association with the exotic, the adventurous, and with high tech all adds to this celebrification of the activist.
And the main issue - the issue of intelligent systems and solutions to poverty - drifts into becoming a side issue - and the money, the man/woman, the dramatic sense of adventure that the mission conjures up in the mind of the audience, dominates the narrative and the real issue - which should be about changing lives through impactful solutions - becomes a B grade movie. Because the celebrity narrative has taken over.
And no one remembers the lonely brave individual village mother who started this place of care in the village a long time ago. But everyone remembers the celebrity who pitched up, chose some children and left. This is extractive philanthropy - like mining was extractive under colonialism. The best diamonds were always shipped overseas. I don’t see them adopting war-disfigured children, or mentally or physically challenged children. Those children will stay behind to die in poverty.
The consequence of all this is that ultimately it becomes extremely difficult to extract oneself from this celebrification. Because hereafter the money won't flow unless this celebrity status is maintained. And when you lose your celebrity status, your lose the stage and the money and the access. And what no one notices is that the cause, the child, the war, the poverty, the hunger is still there. Largely unchanged.
We have seen the celebrities. They sang "We are the world". And then the world turned its back on the cause. They sang "Do they know is Christmas time in Africa?" And then they celebrated Christmas. Without "them". They pitched up at Davos. They spoke at the UN. They met the Queen. They travelled on private jets to visit the causes. They adopted African children. They flew the children in to speak at global events.
But slowly this celebrification became the cancer in poverty relief and donor engagements. Because no longer were donors and governments and conference organizers interested in what you knew and what your success has been in improving lives on the ground.
All they wanted to know was which global causes recognized you and which conferences you went to and which papers you delivered and - wait for it - which celebrities endorsed you, engaged with you, visited your project, highlighted you in their speech or video etc. And the terminality of this cancer was clear when those activist and development practitioners who we’re supposed to represent the poor did the same and became seduced by the power of the celebrity disease. The celebrification had become terminal.
The world of Aid is in serious crisis. I have been stating for a while now that the NGO world of poverty relief is under going a renaissance. The nausea caused by this cancerous celebrification is showing its bankruptcy. A new simple intelligence is emerging. Minus the pictures. Minus the celebrities. Minus the exotic awe-inspiring adventure.
A simple intelligence that takes serious the task of collaboratively designing systems which will life produce solutions for all stakeholders to ensure that in a short time chart-boggling success is shown