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Blog: Humanitarian work - it's the new black

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: At an open-air concert somewhere, Bono is called to the stage to speak to the crowd.

At first, he says nothing, only claps his hands every few seconds. After about five claps, he says to the audience: “Every time I clap, a child in Africa dies.”

An audience member yells back: “Well stop sodding clapping then!”

Making fun of bleeding-heart celebrities has become a favourite pastime of the media, and in today’s world where column inches (or screen inches) equal power and influence, it is easy to question the motivation of celebrities who trot around refugee camps right before the release of their latest film or album.

Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that celebrities are not necessarily helping the causes they support. Popular US TV shows like 30 Rock and South Park, for instance, have parodied Al Gore's earnest messages about climate change, potentially detracting from the seriousness of the problem.

Bono’s Product Red, which works with large consumer companies to sell Red products such as iPods, clothing and mobile phones to raise money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has also come under heavy fire, with media reports claiming the organisation has spent more on marketing than it has raised.

At this year’s International AIDS Conference in Mexico, pop singer Annie Lennox has championed the cause of AIDS in Africa. A sombre-looking Lennox made an impassioned plea to the world for more support for poor women and children on the continent worst-affected by the pandemic. She said she hoped her celebrity would raise the profile of the issue and encourage greater involvement of civil society and governments around the world.

Also at the conference was the African American actress, Sheryl Lee Ralph, who joined a panel of prominent African Americans to criticise the US government for neglecting the HIV epidemic among black Americans. Had any satirists been present, Ralph’s dramatic demands for better health services for African Americans, complete with a bulging vein in her forehead, would have made for great material.

The bottom line, however, is that whatever their motives, big names do get publicity for the charities and causes they champion. Many people in the West know about the impacts of HIV in Africa because of Bono, they know about the crisis in Darfur because of George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and they know about orphans in Malawi because of Madonna.

Bob Geldof’s Live Aid raised millions for famine relief back in the 80s, and Madonna is raising funds to support six projects for orphans in Malawi. Several of these celebrities have put their money where their mouth is, donating millions of dollars (and not just their time) to various charities. Brangelina sold their baby photos for some US$14 m to People magazine and have promised to donate it through their foundation. For that kind of effort, we're willing to put up with the odd bulging forehead vein.

kr/ks/bp

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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Children read HIV messages to fellow pupils at a school in Layibi, northern Uganda
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