Can Celebrities Help Bring Peace?

We are used to seeing celebrities raising awareness for crises and conflicts. It's not just their fans listening to them: George Clooney has addressed the UN, Nicole Kidman has spoken to US Congress, and Ben Affleck has advised the U.S. Secretary of State.

But not everyone is star-struck. Critics argue that celebrities can sometimes do more harm than good, with some going so far as to accuse certain celebrities of creating “humanitainment”.

In areas affected by conflict, celebrities often visit sites as ambassadors or advocates - they may set up charities, represent international organizations, and draw attention to the situation. From afar, they often act as witnesses to a crisis, good-will representatives, fundraisers, and activists.

Regardless of how well-meaning a famous figure may be, there are concerns that celebrity projects may focus on only one angle of a crisis, impose elitist or outside interventions, simplify complex situations, and encourage support only for a short time at a crises worst moment – not before or after.

Dr Ilan Kapoor said celebrities bring their own bias to developing regions, shaping the global public’s understanding.

"I think the media are complicit in this, because the media is constantly looking for quick answers, the spectacular, the glitz and the glam,” Dr Kapoor told OESFE.

"So by using celebrities we tend to get very quick pictures – we tend to look only at the symptoms and not at the broader causes.”

So, how can celebrities get it right?

Dr Alexandra Budabin, from the University of Dayton, said that while celebrity activism is very powerful, celebrities need to do their homework, and take the responsibility of speaking for others very seriously. Supporting local initiatives is one way of doing this.

"The best way to help those groups is to join them in something they are already doing, rather than to impose our ideas,” Dr Kapoor said.

Dr Lisa Richey, from Roskilde University, agrees. She told us: “Celebrities cannot ‘save’ floundering organizations but can bring additional resources to support good work being done.”

Ben Affleck's work in the DRC is an example of this approach, and the actor often focuses on local organisations, and individuals, when discussing a crisis.

Academy Award-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou is an Oxfam Global Ambassador, and he told us he was impressed with the local response he saw on a trip to Nigeria recently.

"Local communities and organizations are the true first responders and have experience, access, and insights that are invaluable during a crisis and to solve everyday challenges that vulnerable communities face," Mr Hounsou said.

Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk works with international organisation War Child, and she told us celebrities do have an important role to play. She said authentic understanding and conviction is very important.

“One cannot speak from the heart without being truly exposed to, and educated on, the issues. That's not allowed," Ms Kreviazuk said.