I have generally found that media coverage of this research seems to gravitate to questions as to whether celebrity advocacy is good or bad, effective or ineffective. I find that frustratingly simplistic. The view that I argue for in Celebrity Advocacy and International Development is a bit more complicated. But it can nevertheless be expressed briefly.
The argument on four paradoxes of celebrity advocacy. The first paradox is that celebrity advocacy occupies a significant proportion of the public domain, but does so without always engaging particularly well with much of the public. Celebrity is populist in form, but not always popular in character. Second, that failure to engage the public does not really matter. Celebrity advocacy can be a remarkably effective tool for working with corporate and government elites. It works partly because they experience closer, less mediated, encounters with celebrity advocates and partly because these elites, and the NGO elites lobbying them, are unlikely to notice any lack of engagement by the general public. It would be hard for them to notice the lack. Good evidence of what public engagement with celebrity constitutes is scarce. The assumption that celebrity advocacy is popular is deeply rooted. What matters, however, is that they believe that celebrities are embodying the affective will of the people. Third, it is not just elites who may be deceived as to the nature of celebrities’ influence, in the glare of publicity we, the viewers and consumers of celebrity spectacle, are also blinded. We may think that the publicity is the important aspect of celebrity. But publicity can be a sideshow; what matters goes on behind the scenes.
My argument therefore is that celebrity advocacy which is now so well organised by NGOs marks, ironically, a disengagement between the public and politics, and particularly between the public and the civil society organisations which try to represent development and humanitarian needs. It is not an expression of the popular will because the evidence indicates that interest in celebrity seems rather thinner and more variable than we might expect. Its rise has not been fuelled by popular demand but by corporate power. Celebrity advocacy is by and for elites. It provides a means for NGO elites to work more effectively with corporate and policy elites, not the broader population. As such celebrity advocacy is part of the lived practices of post-democracy.
And what are the consequences of this state of affairs for the achievements of celebrity advocates for development? My argument here is that thus far the influence of celebrity on development issues and problems per se has been relatively limited. Celebrity is rather good at sustaining an NGO sector, but not necessarily good at tackling inherently problematic development issues. However I will also argue that the new development actors that celebrities constitute could be used more imaginatively, and progressively, than at present. The final paradox is that the very post-democratic politics which can make elites oppressive may also contain within it the possibilities of making celebrity advocacy progressive.
I wrote Celebrity Advocacy and International Development in order to present the data that underpin that argument. The book proceeds as follows:
The Outline of the Book Chapters
In brief the book proceeds as follows: the next two chapters discuss the important ideas and writings with which any study of celebrity advocacy has to engage. I then review the history of celebrity advocacy (chapter four). Chapters five and six examine respectively the current state of celebrity advocacy and how it is co-ordinated and managed by NGOs. Chapters seven and eight explore the different responses to celebrity advocacy in elite groups (chapter seven) and British publics (chapter eight). The conclusion (chapter nine) examines what we have learnt from all of this and its implications for development and post-democratic politics.
In more detail the substance of the chapters is as follows:
I begin by examining the problems of portraying the needs of distant strangers, and the sorts of public awareness of development with which NGOs are wrestling, and producing (chapter two). This review demonstrates the limited public understanding of development with which celebrity advocacy must contend, as well as emphasizing the importance of looking at celebrity advocacy with elites. Chapter three examines debates about celebrity advocacy more specifically, and the broader debates about media and democracy of which they are part. I discuss thinking about the role of elites and elite lobbying in post-democracy, and contrasting views about the democratic implications of new media forms of which celebrity is part, focussing specifically on critiques of celebrity advocacy. I argue that these critiques have not sufficiently got to grips with the anatomy of celebrity advocacy– the nuts and bolts as to how it is done.
These two chapters cover the main theoretical ground with which we need to be familiar if we are to understand and analyse the phenomenon of celebrity advocacy for development and humanitarian causes. Each chapter ends with the important questions that I distil from the literature, and which I will attempt to answer in the conclusion.
I then offer a short history of celebrity interventions in development and humanitarian causes (chapter four). This, rather surprisingly, goes back a long way. In fact it is arguable that the real peak of celebrity advocacy for development occurred in the Victorian era. I will show that the relationship between fame and development has been patchy and intermittent since then, but has become increasingly intense in the last ten years. But in describing that long relationship I also show that the current crescendo of celebrity philanthropy differs from previous eras, and particularly from earlier decades. The change derives from the changing nature of the contest over what development means. For that contest is now marked by the dominance of neoliberal thinking, which in turn both engenders and is nurtured by post-democratic politics. Thus a political space for celebrity interventions in development and humanitarianism is forged.
We can then review the current state of celebrity advocacy (chapter five). This chapter makes two important points for the argument as a whole. First, I make plain that behind the crescendo of celebrity advocacy in the last 10-15 years there lies a profound reorganization and systematization of the relationships between the celebrity and NGO sectors. Second, when we evaluate the achievements of celebrity advocates, personal, unmediated, encounters between NGO supporters and celebrity supporters always appear useful. This will help us to understand celebrity advocacy’s effectiveness with elites later.
Having explored how interactions have changed over time, and what sort of celebrity advocacy is now going on, we can examine how these interactions are constructed. The sixth chapter traces a number of common experiences and practices that shape the interactions of NGOs and the celebrity industry which are now taught by celebrity liaison officers in workshops and disseminated in blogs and websites. It then examines the forces shaping the presentation of celebrity advocacy and particularly celebrity field trips overseas. In this chapter we explore in more detail the nature of the authenticity that celebrity advocates for development display.
Chapters five and six constitute one of the three key pillars of this book, for they make the case for a systematic and organised set of NGO relations with celebrity amongst the largest development and humanitarian NGOs. Effective lobbying in post-democracies has required new forms of civil society organisation and operation. These chapters explain how celebrity advocates are organised and marshalled to enable development and humanitarian NGOs to work more effectively in post-democracies.
Crucial to the shaping of celebrity advocacy practices with NGOs, and their workings in post-democratic polities, are the way in which celebrity advocates and elites interact, and these we explore in chapter seven. Business elites are keen to encounter and work with public figures, political elites love meeting them, and being seen to do so, celebrities love meeting other elites, and media elites need access to all these groups. On the basis of interview data examining when and with whom celebrity works, and by drawing on grey literature from elite gatherings, this chapter explains how well celebrity advocacy works in elite-dominated politics.
Chapter seven provides the second pillar of the book. For it demonstrates the importance of corporate interests in shaping NGO strategies, the effectiveness with which celebrity ambassadors then work with political and corporate elites and how thoroughly elites believe in the power of celebrity advocacy. It also shows that relationships between celebrities and NGOs are constitutive of post-democratic elite governance, particularly with respect to international development.
But what are different audiences making of all of this? Chapter eight examines how Britons respond to celebrity advocacy using the survey data and focus groups. These data show that interest in celebrity is a minority affair, but that it is popularly, and falsely, believed to be popular. Nonetheless Britons help to build its edifice because they demonstrate widespread belief in its efficacy. That belief is founded on celebrity’s place in the glamorous ‘media world’, and because they believe charitable donations are an effective way of engaging in politics.
This chapter provides the final pillar of the book. For it presents the evidence that celebrity is not as popular as it might first appear. It shows that celebrity advocacy can signal a form of disengagement from publics, not populist engagement with them. Celebrity advocacy is thus one of the components of the separation of the demos from the institutions which rule them.
And so we come to the issue of what all this means for international development. What does this study add to our understanding of celebrity, to development and the world that celebrified development is creating? What does it portend for international development itself? I examine in the conclusion how celebrity advocacy affects public understandings of development and what prospects there are for using celebrity effectively to combat international economic inequities. Here I present the argument that in post-democratic politics more celebrity lobbying, elitist though it is, may well be required. I suggest that those who argue for more powerful democracies and democratic deliberation of development policies need to consider the character of the public sphere in post-democracies for their recommendations about globally just economic policies to take effect.
Finally in my last word, the Afterword, I present a more personal reaction to all that I have just written, and its prospects for international development.