Contexts

If the idea of studying celebrity is strange to you, or the meaning of ‘celebrity’ confusing, there is a special page devoted to the topic. This page dwells on the specific contexts within which we have to understand the work of celebrity in international development. There are three:

1. We have to see current developments in the role of fame in good causes overseas in terms of their broader historical context, for it is a strange history. One hundred and fifty years ago some of the most famous people of their era were so because of their desire to do good things overseas. Think of David Livingstone and other explorers, you might even include Florence Nightingale, Lord Byron or William Wilberforce. In the early twentieth century many people still won public recognition lobbying for overseas causes (Fridtjof Nansen, Eleanor Rathbone and Victor Gallanz) and Albert Schweitzer won his Nobel Peace Prize in 1952

But thereafter the picture changes. The relationship between fame and supporting worthy causes alters: it does not seem to create many famous people, or it does so in different ways. People like Ghandi and Martin Luther King come to the fore, whereas people who are famous for their development work between the 1950s and Band Aid are few (I can only think of Mother Theresa). Even UNICEF only had one celebrity ambassador, Danny Kaye, in its early days. The contrast with the situation just one hundred years earlier is marked. If we are to understand what has happened in the last twenty five years it will be important to understand what has driven the remarkable changes in the nature of fame won for good causes.

2. The work of celebrity in international development is but part of celebrity philanthropy. If we want to understand the former, we have to know a little bit more about trends in the latter. Therefore I am analyzing the database collected by Steve and Myrlia Purcell, who founded ‘Look to the Stars’, I am talking to celebrity liaison offices in a wide variety of organisations, and I am developing an index of celebrity engagement in philanthropy, so that how the support international development enjoys from celebrity compares to other good causes.

3. International Development’s use of and interaction with celebrity has to be understood in terms of more general use of, and relations with the media. This is an intriguing topic because it also includes getting to grips what northern publics understand about poorer parts of the world, and the nature of development activity. In other words it includes exploring what people are making of the general messages they are receiving from newspapers, television and the internet. This is not always encouraging, but it is quite fascinating.

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