Spare us the toe-curling stunts of celebrities on foreign aid ego trips

Published by The Daily Mail (30th December, 2015)

Perhaps actor Michael Sheen has spent too much time playing Tony Blair. For he seems to have developed similar disdain for the public in his latest role as a political activist.

During his questionable stint as guest editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, the star lashed out at widespread criticism over torrents of aid flowing abroad rather than funding flood prevention programmes at home.

Sheen, who lives for much of the year in Los Angeles, said he was ‘completely sick’ of people in Britain using aid as ‘a political football’, blaming the ‘ideological agendas’ of the ‘Right- wing press’.

Needless to say, the Welsh actor’s outburst claiming it was a ‘false argument’ to question spending £12 billion this year on foreign aid while flood defences fail across the North of England was met with a robust response from Britons struggling to salvage homes and businesses hit by rising waters.

‘It’s all well and good for him to pontificate from afar, but he is wrong,’ said one pensioner whose Yorkshire bakery was devastated by flooding.

Sheen’s childish attack also flew in the face of facts: some of the fiercest criticism of these priorities came from a Labour MP. ‘Why do we spend money in Bangladesh when it needs spending in Great Britain?’ asked Simon Danczuk, whose Rochdale constituency was hit.

Perhaps one of the programme’s editors might also have pointed out to the actor that a hefty majority of voters oppose Britain’s aid splurge coming before spending at home.

Or that the Government’s obsession with hitting the arbitrary United Nations target on aid spending of 0.7 per cent of the national income has been criticised by respected Labour peers and a Nobel Prize- winning economist.

The truth is that Sheen — a man who accumulated fame and fortune by pretending to be other people — is just the latest celebrity recruited by the aid industry and given a prominent platform to pose as an expert.

We now live in a celebrity-obsessed world in which Hollywood film stars give evidence on Africa to the Senate in Washington, while multi-millionaire pop stars arrogantly claim to represent the planet’s poorest people.

Indeed, former foreign secretary William Hague was so dazzled by Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie they ended up hosting a £5.2 million four-day summit on sexual violence in war zones together.

Charities exploit this trend by finding famous recruits to promote policies and raise profiles, knowing that many self-obsessed entertainers love to pose as saviours of the world.

Sheen, for example, is one of 29 ‘celebrity supporters’ of Unicef UK alongside the likes of TV presenter Cat Deeley, ex-footballer Ryan Giggs and former Spice Girl Emma Bunton.

The charity has taken Sheen to visit projects in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, leading to flattering coverage in subsequent media appearances. He even blogged in praise of foreign aid on behalf of its paymasters, the Department for International Development.

The aid industry has no doubt such spending pays off. ‘[Celebrities] help us to gain thousands of pounds’ worth of media coverage for our causes,’ admitted a Christian Aid spokesman.

Four years ago, Save The Children took three celebrities to three countries on three different continents to ‘better understand how breastfeeding is such a crucial lifesaver for babies in developing countries’.

Chief executive Justin Forsyth defended taking X-Factor runner-up Stacey Solomon (remember her?) to Malawi by saying they will not achieve their aims ‘without the power of famous voices’.

So what was Solomon’s verdict on her investigation of maternal mortality? ‘It was wicked,’ she said afterwards. ‘The people there are so nice and happy. It was one of the nicest experiences I have ever had.’

This typifies how much of the resulting coverage is at best banal, at worst self-serving and cringe-making. Yet still, three-quarters of Britain’s biggest charities have someone working full-time handling relationships with celebrities.

The giant Christian charity World Vision was so keen to lure Lady Grantham from Downton Abbey that it gave the actress who played her, Elizabeth McGovern, £28,000 for the recording of an album by her little-known rock band Sadie And The Hotheads.

Then it spent another £5,000 taking the actress, her teenage daughter and two charity officials to Sierra Leone.

Yet the toe-curling account of the costly trip served only to highlight this absurd world of celebrity aid ambassadors.

It began badly. Landing to refuel, the American actress confused Dakar — the serene capital of Senegal — with Darfur, a conflict-riven region of Sudan several thousand miles east.

Then she praised the ‘healthy’ food of one of the world’s poorest countries, where more than two-thirds of people live below the poverty line.

‘You don’t see all those crap chains and stuff,’ she said. ‘It’s like a holiday. I feel a bit guilty.’

A non-Christian, she confessed she had no idea the U.S.-based charity was a faith-based group, even though its logo is a shining cross. ‘I was stupid not to realise it,’ she later admitted.

One charity chaperone on that trip admitted they needed ‘to break in their new celebrities slowly’. But not before McGovern asked about stars taking local children home with them, accused Africans of having more sex than Westerners and dropped her iPhone down a toilet.

With no sense of irony, the actress says in a video shot during the trip that she had been hesitant in the past about ‘throwing’ money at charities since she had little idea how it was spent.

Charities like to call these junkets ‘fact-finding tours’. The stars might not even know what country they are in, let alone about the complex causes of poverty or sensitive local issues.

But the idea is that they can use their stardust to raise cash and win uncritical attention.

After visiting a slum in Nairobi with Christian Aid, actor Nicholas Hoult — star of About A Boy — told breakfast television viewers: ‘It’s like a music festival where you can’t get out, the toilets never get cleaned and there’s no music.’

Such statements infuriate many Africans, angered by what has been termed ‘celebrity colonialism’.

Critics argue that these campaigns often present false images of fast-developing countries being used by celebrities as backdrops to exhibit their benevolence.

Perhaps people would do better to listen to an African entertainer such as the rapper Akon, who is investing his wealth in energy projects run by local professionals.

‘I don’t believe in aid for Africa,’ he said earlier this month. ‘I don’t believe it works.’

Yet a flood of celebrities continues to pour into the continent for charities and public bodies.

Pop star Christina Aguilera made a trip with the UN World Food Programme, which led to a piece in People magazine about her exploits in ‘war-torn Rwanda’ — a country that has not seen conflict within its own borders for two decades.

It was all about her, of course. ‘This trip came at a time when I needed to step away and connect with bigger issues in the world,’ she said. ‘This trip touched me in a way I have never felt before.’

Aguilera is also a global spokesperson for the charitable efforts of Yum! Brands, which underlines again the complexity of development. For the U.S. giant is owner of fast-food brands such as KFC, fast expanding fried chicken outlets across Africa.

Yet few realise there are more obese and overweight people, with all the attendant health issues, than those going to bed hungry in developing nations these days.

The UN now has scores of stars signed up for these fatuous posts supporting its children’s fund, among them pop singer Katy Perry.

Perry was treated to a four-day trip to Madagascar by Unicef, where she seemed struck to find none of her fans in another of the world’s poorest nations. ‘They don’t even know who I am,’ she said. ‘They just see a person coming to help them, to spread the love and joy.’

She added that the trip left its mark — on her, at least. ‘Everyone should take this kind of trip. It popped my bubble for sure.’

How nice. It must feel good for these stars to be taken on exotic trips and feted as oracles on some of the world’s most serious issues.

But the gloss needs to be stripped from these patronising stunts. Serious media outlets should question these self-serving alliances between celebrity and charity, not simply provide platforms for preening and muddle-headed proselytising.

Perhaps Michael Sheen should stick to acting, rather than lecturing the rest of us on how our taxes should be spent.

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