Can celebrities really save the world?

Vanity Fair - July 2007 Issues.

Vanity Fair – July 2007 Issues.

There’s no doubt that celebrities can and do make a difference when it comes to development. As Goodman and Barnes say, “they have an elevated position within society” (2011:75). They are able to use their publicity and likability to draw attention to issues that otherwise would not receive as much airtime. Using celebrities has a number of negative implications that I will discuss in this blog.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I see a celebrity campaigning within development is their career. Of course one of the main reasons why celebrities get involved in these campaigns is simply to raise awareness; to use the money and fame that they have to “give a little back”. At least that’s what I’d like to think. Take Cheryl Cole – a popular singer and fashion icon since 2002. In July 2010, Cole was admitted to hospital with severe malaria making the front page of almost every magazine and newspaper. No more than a month later she was appointed ambassador of malaria for Comic Relief.

Cheryl makes the headlines.

Cheryl makes the headlines.

Cole with fellow celebrities on Red Nose Day for Comic Relief.

Yes she experienced first-hand the effects of the disease making her a reliable spokesperson for malaria, but what makes her more reliable than a skilled doctor or researcher and more representitive for the 655,000 Africans who fell victim to the disease in 2010? Perhaps ‘reliable’ is the wrong word. What makes her more appealing? As Cargill (2010) argues, it can help to have a celebrity clarify what is a complicated development issue into a message that ordinary people who aren’t specialists in the field can appeal to. Celebrities are omnipresent and due to technology, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social networking sights, it makes it so much easier to access stories about their personal lives. They are role models. If an inspirational figure in your life starts campaigning for a worthy cause, it’s extremely likely that you will research into it too, and potentially join and donate to the cause. However after further research it came to my attention that since 2010 when Cole’s role as ambassador was first announced there has not been since any information published about the matter. In the articles that have beenpublished the main content has been buried under “celebrity guff” as Emslie in the DIA blog calls it, such as her divorce to her footballer husband and her removal from the popular reality show, The X Factor. Perhaps this was not only a way of increasing awareness of malaria, but also a way of increasing Cole’s publicity.

Some celebrities actively get involved within the politics of development, for example Bono and Wyclef Jean. Others simply use their star power and relationship to a development-related issue to work to raise the profile of various issues in and through the media (Goodman & Barnes, 2011:71). Of course the more publicity and funding an organization gets the more the cause will be known. And the more the cause is known the more the celebrity involved benefits.

It is this link between gestures of goodwill and humanity, and the desire to constantly publicize their own careers that we need to question. What are the intentions behind the celebrity’s participation in development campaigns? How is the money raised by the celebrities put to use?

This is another example of whether or not aid is working. Although celebrities can bring a lot of funding and publicity to a certain issue, if their intentions are skewed then there is an element of corruption in the aid money. There’s no doubt that having a famous person involved in campaigning increases publicity. If celebrities help increase the amount of debate and bring more people into the conversation about what good policy is they play a very positive role in increasing the public’s awareness. It is when celebrities take the place of professionals within the industry that the problems begin. Information and data could be inaccurate, intentions could be corrupt and causes that aren’t seen as ‘glamorous’ as others such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) could be excluded from their repertoire.


Cargill, T. (2010) Radio interview in: Do celebrities have a role to play in development?, Guardian Focus Podcast, 17th December 20120 09.15 hrs. [Accessed: 29/11/12]

Emslie, R. (2011) Celebrities and Development: Should They Mix?, Development in Action Blog,

Goodman, M. K. & Barnes, C. (2011) Star/poverty space: the making of the development celebrity, Celebrity Studies, Taylor and Francis, 2 (1), p.75

World Health Organization (2012), Malaria Face Sheet, Media Centre,

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