Readers Write: The Pop-Culture Movement to 'Save' Africa

AlterNet readers had some strong and articulate reactions to G. Pascal Zachary's article The Problematic Pop-Culture Movement to 'Save' Africa. A number of them follow below, including a response by the author at the end.

Some readers pleaded for a better understanding of the African continent and its people, such as Bobsays, who wrote:


Actually, one of the first things you notice about Africa when you are there -- apart from its long list of well-known problems -- is its optimism, its dreams. Dreams are the things Africans have plenty of. They don't need to import dreams, they need to export goods and services.
I have noticed over the past six years raw, elitist and aggressive hijacking of international development and poverty issues by a small elite of celebrities. This has coincided with the biggest boom in wealth for these people ever in human history. And the result has been destructive. It has commodified the struggle to reduce poverty, it has turned it into a shameless spectacle that strips the dignity away of the poor (especially with its development porn picture which always show people as weak and helpless), and it has framed ending poverty with only one concept: charity. Charity is not the way to end poverty. Today's biggest poverty fighter, China, is not using charity to end poverty. It is using solid economic development policies and education. This is what Africa needs.
An African reader called Progbiz weighs in:
"As an African, given the deeply desperate situation in too much of my continent, I think any help is welcome. We do need to ultimately do it ourselves and we will. Only 2 percent of the U.S. population supports international aid. The various events, campaigns, stunts all ultimately help to improve awareness and in time action. Yes, there is a downside ... but we may be deep in that ravine anyway ... David will be well cared for and may come back to help, educated, well-nourished, well-connected and healthy.

There were pointed critiques of celebrity engagement in social issues, such as LeftWright's:
If "superstar" entertainers really wanted to help, they would create their own fund to help targeted NGOs to build water projects and schools, and fund microbanks, as a start. They could also use their power of the pulpit to shine a bright light on the activites of Western governments/corporations that exacerbate all these problems in the first place.
Standard of living does not equal quality of life. The American standard of living is sucking the life out of the rest of the world. The U.S. economy is not sustainable in its present form; the sooner we realize this, the easier it will be to transition to a sustainable economy and a more peaceful world.
Vangogh69:
Madonna's adoption and this "buy red" campaign are merely cheap and liberal ways to help vast and complex problems. It's funny how there's no mention in either instance of how Africa arrived at its current state, almost as if 300 years of imperialism and colonialism NEVER HAPPENED. First in foremost, we need to discuss the European and American debt to Africa, a price which frankly can never be paid back and certainly not by celebs hoping to snag a photo-op.
My second thing is this: Why do these celebrities need to cross the Atlantic to find needy children? Do we not have adoption in America? Secondly, is AIDS for blacks in the U.S. not an issue anymore? Sorry, but the help should start at home before Madonna or Jolie go "over there" (and you too Bono!) to "save the world ... one donation at a time."
You know, if Madonna really wanted to be progressive (and help out), she could highlight the current plight of Detroit which is a city left behind by globalization and neo-capitalism. She could highlight the infant mortality rate of that city and the cases of AIDS there.
Badkitty notes:
How can a jacket save the world? or eliminate AIDS, etc.? The Global Fund (www.theglobalfund.org) was created, according to their website, to increase resources to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. "Product (RED) is a global initiative whose primary objective is to engage the private sector in the fight against AIDS in Africa by channeling funds from the sale of (RED) products directly to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Companies whose products take on the (RED) mark contribute a portion of profits from the sale of that product to Global Fund-financed programs in Africa. Current partners are American Express, Converse, Gap, Giorgio Armani and Motorola.
I'm a Gap employee, and I must say I am dubious about this way of helping (I contribute to Heifer), since I don't think increased consumption is the right way to go, but let's face it, every day I am told that I don't think like other people, so if this is what they want to do, maybe it will make a difference, which would be wonderful. In the long run though (and I don't think it's that far away), global warming will get us all.
User monkeywrench writes:
What happens to all the kids who will not be chosen by celebrities? What happens when publicity-hound celebrities grow tired of this latest fad? What will happen to these kids when these too-busy stars hand them off to housekeepers and aupairs? Sure, they will be better off materially (after all, Madonna is the "Material Girl"...), but what will exposure to wretched excess do to their spirits? (The behavior of some offspring of current celebrities does not inspire confidence.)
Maybe if these self-impressed "stars" really want to help, they could use the money they would lavish on one kid in Beverly Hills and build a health clinic or school (or several) in Africa; and if helping the poor there is really more important than the career "brownie points" to be scored here at home, they could do it with little fanfare beyond what would attract matching funds from elsewhere. THAT would be worth far more than buying adoptees Ferraris when they turn 16.
There were further pleas that we pay more attention to the problems at home, as Intraspecto writes:
We have enough problems at home before we even think about trying to save the world. In my opinion, we should leave the world to its own devices and get our health care, education, political, and economic fronts back on the right track. Otherwise we are no good to anyone, and especially not our own people. With the average American worker sliding into poverty, and over 18,000 deaths a year attributed to Americans not having adequate health coverage, our political system in decay, and corporations taking over, we MUST put our people first. In light of that, I could care less about any other nations on earth -- until we fix our own.
Missleighanne:
Due to an inefficient government and grossly overpriced medical care, many children (and adults) in the U.S. suffer third-world medical conditions. Madonna and the like would appear far more intelligent if they focused first upon the inequalities in their own countries. In the U.S., this would mean healthful food, comfortable shelter and accessible health care at home. One rarely sees Hollywood celebs caring for AIDS children in American overcrowded hospitals and neighborhoods, or fostering "underpriviledged youth".
In the light of our so-called war, these commercial, international public relations stunts demonstrate how quickly we as Americans can be herded, like sheep, from more important issues at hand.
Some readers strongly defended Madonna and expressed appreciation for celebrities diving into global issues. Glow asks:
Why is it so popular to dump on Madonna? I read this campaign as her calling attention to AIDS and to the plight of African orphans. She is not just adopting one child, she is setting up a large facility there for health and education. Unless we have done something, what credibility do we have criticizing the very personal commitment that has been made by Madonna? Celebrities are what they are, and they can use their popularity to call attention to causes. Perhaps governments [that are not overly committed to unjust wars] would be the better advocates for changes needed in crisis situations, but when governments don't do their good deeds, who will? Again, why pick on Madonna and not Bush, the U.S. Congress, Clinton, H.W. Bush, Paul McCartney, Bono, etc. Is it because Madonna is a succesful and independent woman? Is this some guy thing?
User tessbscharaga@sbcglobal asserts:
Come on people, let's try and put things in perspective! Celebrities use their high profiles to bring attention to causes they are interested in, or issues that catch their attention. I have to admit that, like many Americans, I would still have trouble pointing out Namibia and Malawi in a map if it wasn't for Angie and Madonna. So first of all, let's at least give them credit for that. As for how they could best spend their money, I don't think it's any of our business. They've earned it and yes, they will make mistakes, just like the rest of us. Only an idiot would think they can help Africa one person at a time, and since we measure success by the amount of money we reap, we can all agree these celebrities are not idiots. If they could influence the rest of us to follow suit, then they could claim they've made a difference, like the grains of sand you know, stopping the mighty sea? It's not about one individual's desire to help, or one individual contribution, it's about what we can do collectively. Let's not confuse the issues; Bonno, Angelina and Madonna got us to pay attention to what they were doing in Africa. It seems, from reading the article and previous comments, that they got us to care. Now it's up to each and everyone one of us to find a way to help.

And there was some stiff criticism of the author in the comments, too. Ssg wrote:
While I do agree that there is something problematic and perhaps misguided about the attempts of lay people and celebrities from the West to help Africans, I don't think this article really hones in on the issues. Terms like "ham-handed," "the newest Ugly American" are clever, but the article is very vague about its critique. There's a mention of Madonna having violated local laws. Has this been substantiated? And if so, what laws, and why?
What specifically are the claims of the human rights critics? In the Gap RED ad, of course, there are not going to be details about how it will help eliminate AIDS in Africa -- does anyone expect such details on a billboard? However, the information is readily available at joinred.com. I am personally very leary of any solution that involves merely throwing money at a problem, but the article seems to imply that the RED campaign is an inherently dishonest one, deliberately misleading people about its mandate.
Then, there are comments like: "TOO BAD Jolie couldn't have experienced the standard level of hospital care," which are downright despicable and misogynistic, and further undermine the author's thesis. If Jolie had experienced the "standard level" of care and her child did die, what exactly would that prove? I don't believe Madonna or Angelina Jolie are adopting (African) children to "bolster" their appeal. First of all, I don't think either one of them need the help, quite frankly, and secondly, this article is the first time I ever heard this idea that "media routines" involving African children bolster the appeal of female stars. In America? Since when? I believe adoption is one of the greatest gifts one human being can give to another, and it is incredibly cynical to assume offensive motives just because a celebrity is involved. Are the intentions good, but the actions misguided? Probably so.
Wildfire writes:
Nobody at (PRODUCT) RED says that they are, single-handedly going to end AIDS in Africa -- no one can do that. So should we NOT do something? anything? Did Madonna tell G. Pascal Zachary that she was planning on ending poverty in Africa by adopting this child? I doubt it. So why would he both put words in her mouth and be so disingenuous as to her motives? It sounds like he's got a giant stick up his ass against celebrities in general, and he's focusing his venom and the one thing we might admire about their actions -- at least some of them.
This is a typical ultraliberal bullshit diatribe. Nobody can rob anyone of their dignity ... And why is dignity more important than food, medicine and shelter? This is ALWAYS the screwed-up logic used by the no-brain liberal (often academic) establishment to make their sorry points ... Dignity? These people have dignity, what they need is help -- and if they don't need it or want it, there are plenty of people who do. By his own admission, Lorence and family can't feed themselves and need assistance, yet the author claims they can take care of themselves. Great, then move on to Darfur, or Sudan, or Ethiopia, or Burkina Faso where people can't and seriously DO need help. Why get on Madonna's case (or Bono's or anyone's) for trying to help people anyway they can or see fit?
Madonna didn't make anyone a prop. She spent time in Malawai (just like the author) and (I bet) did more good there than he ever did.
User Agsrue chimes in:
I find this article highly cynical and ripe with what the author accuses Jolie, Bono and Madonna of: practicing moral superiority.
This writer hasn't talked to Madonna or Jolie, and so has no idea what either of them are thinking. Jolie has done a lot to lend her celebrity to help those in Africa and so is Madonna. Perhaps Madonna saw the child and came to care for him and thus wanted to adopt him.
I also find it interesting that this story is suggesting that Africans are nothing more than "props" to Madonna and Jolie, yet asks the question whether Madonna could have adopted some child with both parents gone, as if she were shopping for car or some other object.
Author G. Pascal Zachary responds:
Of the many responses I could make to the very many perspectives of these comments is to simply remind everyone that Madonna has invited public debate about her actions. She asked for special treatment by government (Malawi on the front end and Britain on the back end). She also sought to publicize her charitable actions, presumably to raise support for them (and awareness of the underlying social problems in Africa). So the public has essentially been invited to comment on Madonna's actions and raise serious questions about them, both from a moral and a pragmatic standpoint. So I am not doing anything tricky or condescending by criticizing Madonna, as some writers suggest. I am merely carrying out my responsibilities as a writer on public affairs -- and, by extension, Alternet is doing the same by publishing me and your responses.
Thank you to all who participated in the discussion.

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