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Bosse Lindquist

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Give Us the Money: Does Celebrity Activism Work?

Posted: 11/23/2012 2:06 pm

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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  • No. 1: Justin Bieber

    Being a "Belieber" means so much more than just fawning over the teen heartthrob's sweeping hairdo -- it also means keeping up with the pop star's constant charity giving, from <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/18/justin-bieber-donates-cus_n_1018326.html" target="_hplink">auctioning off his bike</a> to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/06/justin-bieber-scores-1000_n_949589.html" target="_hplink">playing in a basketball fundraiser game.</a> The pop star's most recent generous endeavor was launching a charity campaign along with his holiday album</a>. It benefited seven charities, including <a href="http://www.pencilsofpromise.org/" target="_hplink">Pencils of Promise</a> and <a href="http://www.cityofhope.org/Pages/default.aspx" target="_hplink">City of Hope.</a> "I know firsthand that if you believe in your dreams, everything is possible," <a href="http://www.justinbiebermusic.com/believecharity/" target="_hplink">Bieber said on his website.</a> Find a charity you "Beliebe" in <a href="http://www.justinbiebermusic.com/believecharity/" target="_hplink">here. </a>

  • No. 2: Lady Gaga

    For her outspoken support and advocacy for members of the LGBT community, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/20/lady-gaga-trevor-hero-award_n_1103896.html" target="_hplink">Lady Gaga was honored with the Trevor Hero Award</a> earlier this month. "Our young people are at the center of a health crisis, and vocal leaders like Lady Gaga...have stepped up to help change our culture," David McFarland, interim executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, <a href="http://www.pressparty.com/pg/newsdesk/ladygaga/view/35896/" target="_hplink">said in a statement.</a> One of the many "You and I" singer's charity initiatives this year included <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/13/lady-gagas-nude-portrait-_n_1145661.html" target="_hplink">auctioning off nude photos and a naked portrait of herself on eBay to benefit her Born This Way Foundation. </a> Learn more about Gaga's charity, launching in 2012, <a href="http://bornthiswayfoundation.org/" target="_hplink">here. </a>

  • No. 3: Bono

    Determined to end the famine that took the lives of nearly 30,000 children in Africa, Bono, who is a HuffPost blogger, commissioned the help of big-name celebrities to produce <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bono/famine-africa-sudan-_b_992939.html" target="_hplink">The F Word: Famine is the Real Obscenity</a>, a short film that informs of the famine's devastating effects. Sign ONE's petition <a href="http://one.org/us/actnow/fword_splash.html" target="_hplink">here</a> to call on world leaders to help.

  • No. 4: Scarlett Johansson

    It wasn't enough for Scarlett Johansson to just a write a check for those suffering from hunger and drought in East Africa. The actress, an Oxfam ambassador, chronicled her experience through a<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scarlett-johansson/food-crisis-in-east-africa_b_979003.html" target="_hplink"> series of exclusive HuffPost blogs</a>. She described the conditions, learned about long-term solutions and met with pastoralists and farmers who described a sense of hope amid heartache -- ultimately galvanizing others to get involved in the cause. To help Oxfam continue to save famine victims, donate <a href="https://secure.oxfamamerica.org/site/SPageNavigator/donate_East_Africa_Crisis.html?utm_source=Scarlett&utm_medium=Redirect" target="_hplink">here. </a>

  • No. 5: Angelina Jolie

    Ten years after getting inspired to help refugees while filming "Tomb Raider" in Cambodia, Angelina Jolie is still fulfilling her mission to raise awareness for global humanitarian issues with the UNHCR. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/04/angelina-jolie-honored-fo_n_995369.html" target="_hplink">Jolie was honored for her decade of service</a> in October and was asked to take on the expanded role of "special envoy" to the nations that are struggling the most. Help give a voice to refugees by donating to UNHCR <a href="http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c368.html" target="_hplink">here. </a>

  • No. 6: 50 Cent

    Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson made an about-face in 2011. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/curtis-50-cent-jackson/50-cent-street-king-hunger_b_1016830.html" target="_hplink">The HuffPost blogger, </a>motivated by his struggles growing up, launched a line of energy drinks that provides meals for families in Africa.<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/26/50-cent-discusses-new-boo_n_1033290.html" target="_hplink"> Jackson also wrote a book this year on bullying </a>-- acknowledging he was once part of the problem. Help 50 give back by visiting his site <a href="http://www.streetking.com/giving-back/ " target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • No. 7: Matt Damon

    To teach kids how important it is to advocate for countries that don't have clean water, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/09/matt-damon-teaches-kids-a_n_1138760.html" target="_hplink">Matt Damon dressed up as Santa Claus for Christmas</a> and told the children perched on his lap how wishing for a Water.org bottle this season could hep bring potable drinking water to those in need. Support Water.org's holiday campaign <a href="http://water.org/gift/" target="_hplink">here. </a>

  • No. 8: Ben Affleck

    When the historic Congo election came with ballot stuffing, intimidation and a lack of support for women and illiterate voters, Ben Affleck headed out there in December to investigate what was happening on the ground. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ben-affleck/averting-disaster-in-the-congo_b_1135572.html" target="_hplink">This HuffPost blogger returned with a three-part series, co-written with Cindy McCain</a>, about the injustices people in the region face.

  • No. 9: Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher

    In true form, Ashton Kutcher mixed entertainment and information, aiming to reach a wide audience in April when The Demi and Ashton Foundation launched a huge campaign to spread awareness about sex slavery. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/11/ashton-kutcher-demi-moore-trafficking_n_847291.html" target="_hplink">The launch video for the campaign, featuring Arianna Huffington</a>, spurred conversation about the issue and brought to light the harsh facts surrounding trafficking. Take action to fight sex slavery by visiting the <a href="http://demiandashton.org/action-center" target="_hplink">DNAFoundation here. </a>

  • No. 10: Ellen Degeneres

    Ellen DeGeneres was named the Obama administration's new secret weapon this year in the fight against AIDS. DeGeneres was deemed the new special envoy to raise global awareness, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/08/degeneres-named-aids-envo_0_n_1082000.html" target="_hplink">the <em>Associated Press</em> reported</a>. Sec. of State Hilary Rodham Clinton cited DeGeneres' "sharp wit and big heart, and her impressive TV audience and 8 million followers on Twitter." The TV host also supports animal, poverty and breast cancer organizations, among dozens of other charities. Support DeGeneres and the work of the <a href="http://www.theglobalfund.org/en/donate/" target="_hplink">Global Fund here</a>.

  • No. 11: Sheryl Crow

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/03/slideshow_n_991609.html#s384087&title=Betsey_Johnson" target="_hplink">To help breast cancer sufferers facing the disease that she overcame</a>, Sheryl Crow helped found <a href="http://www.pinklotusbreastcenter.com/sheryl-crow-imaging-center/" target="_hplink">the Sheryl Crow Imaging Center</a> -- in conjunction with <a href="http://www.pinklotusbreastcenter.com/" target="_hplink">L.A.'s Pink Lotus Breast Center</a> -- which offers the latest advancements in digital screening and diagnostic imaging technologies. The only one of its kind in the country, the center provides free treatment to uninsured women. Want to help a patient in need? Donate <a href="http://www.pinklotuspetals.org/" target="_hplink">here.</a>