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Give Us the Money: Does Celebrity Activism Work?

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BONO OBAMA
AP

As part of the "Why Poverty?" campaign, TVO presents documentaries by filmmakers who are passionately committed to shining a light on the human condition and all of its successes and struggles. As it is with their films, the views expressed in TVO's "Why Poverty?" blog series are solely the opinion of the filmmaker.

For a few years during the 70s, I shared Sunday afternoons at the market with some of President Obama's Kenyan relatives. It was a magical place to while away a hot day: warm beer, wonderfully hospitable and courteous farmers and some of the best red clay pottery in all of Kenya. I taught the farmers' kids in the local secondary school, probably learning more about life than I managed to teach my own students.

I had hitchhiked from Sweden to Kenya to escape family and upbringing. Living on a local Kenyan salary in a mud hut gave me a crash course in the basic necessities of life for a substantial part of Earth's then population. It also gave me a different perspective on development workers and foreign aid.

I could see my fellow jo'odiero -- a Dholuo name for the wagtail bird used as a nickname for white people, probably derived from the pompous way some colonials used to strut about -- whizzing by on the national road in luxurious air-conditioned cars, too often insulated from reality physically, culturally and intellectually. To me, this seemed like at least a partial explanation to why many development projects in those days very clearly didn't create sustainable change.

Ever since, I've been wondering what outsiders can do -- if anything -- to affect change in somebody else's country. Especially when it comes to eradicating the atrocious and unacceptable extent to which people live in extreme poverty. Getting the chance to conceive and direct Give Us the Money, one of the Why Poverty? documentaries, gave me a chance to investigate whether there is foreign aid or advocacy that actually helps to make a difference.

Focusing on Bono and Bob Geldof's high-level lobbying also allowed me the added opportunity to see whether my prejudices about celebrity actually hold true: were their efforts as self-centred, short-sighted and superficial as many believe?

Spending the better part of 18 months in the company of politicians, gatekeepers, lobbyists, rock stars, aid workers, government ministers, experts and activists, confirmed the fact that a great deal of development aid money has been squandered in the past. It also showed that there is still far too little unbiased evaluation of the impact of development aid. Surprisingly, after all these years, statistics about the real value of development aid continue to be poor, but the urge to present the public with a sanitized and upbeat view of development efforts -- and its challenges -- persists.

But more astonishingly, it also demonstrated that there most certainly are important efforts that deliver proven results. Today, about eight million HIV-positive people in Africa receive medication thanks to international and local efforts. Perhaps 50 million more kids receive primary education on the continent than ever before. On a smaller scale, there are numerous NGO efforts that achieve excellent value for the money through the dedication and hard work of volunteers.

Two such examples are the charities run by Ethiopian famine survivors Birhan Woldu -- who danced with Madonna in front of billions during the 2005 Live 8 concert in London -- and Bisrat Mesfin. EYES (Ethiopian Youth Educational Support) and A-CET (the African Children's Educational Trust) help build and donate classrooms to local schools, enabling tens of thousands of children to access a place of learning.

And perhaps even better: change is also coming in ways other than development aid. It is largely through indigenous African efforts that six of the world's fastest growing economies are on the continent.

How much of this is due to the work of Bono and Bob Geldof is impossible to say. Public discussion on the Internet and elsewhere is rife with criticism and suspicion. Yes - wealth, stardom and success often invite attempts to bring the lucky down. But clearly, the work of Bono, Geldof and organizations such as the Gates Foundation and their many collaborators has played a part in achieving the gains we see today. So, of course, have the efforts of countless other organizations, individuals and government ministries. Bono and Geldof are part of a much bigger movement involving concerned citizens both in and outside Africa.

However, the structures and circumstances that keep a billion people in extreme poverty are very complex and, at least partly, come down to the political will of the electorates of the rich world. Change costs money - something not everyone is prepared to pay for. Individuals like Bono and Geldof cannot be held accountable whether or not we are swayed by the need to do something about extreme poverty. But I do think they are working quite hard, in their own way, to make change happen.

I set out making my film feeling rather depressed and skeptical about what I would find, but actually came away reinvigorated. Though there still is horrendous injustice in this world, causing unnecessary misery, pain and death for too many people, the fight against extreme poverty isn't hopeless at all.

It's worth it to fight.

Give Us the Money airs Sunday November 25 at 9 pm on TVO, and can be streamed at tvo.org/whypoverty following the broadcast.

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