Celebrity charities can hurt traditional NGOs | Globalization | DW | 02.12.2012
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Celebrity charities can hurt traditional NGOs

Many celebrities, like Grammy winning singer Shakira or Hollywood actor Sean Penn, try to use their status for a good cause. But this can make them competitors to smaller, more traditional aid organizations.

Shakira's foundation "Pies Descalzos" ("Barefoot"), for instance, maintains a handful of modern schools in the poor areas of Bogota, providing education to thousands of children that otherwise would have no chance. The efforts of international celebrities draw media attention and, as a result, millions in donations for a good cause.

Christian Frevel, of the church aid organization Adveniat in Latin America, generally supports that kind of help. "Many celebrities support large non-profit organizations and they become ambassadors for a good cause," he said. "They reach many more people than the non-profit organization could do alone." And, he adds, they encourage other people to do the same - often those in wealthy circles.

Donations on the decline

Christian Frevel

Frevel says celebrity charities should meet the same standards as other NGOs

But the foundations run by celebrities can also become competitors to the traditional aid organizations that don't enjoy celebrity support. These smaller organizations don't often get TV coverage and can't afford to travel the world to drum up support for their projects.

As a result, many people don't even know about the existence of these aid organizations. In the pre-Christmas season, all charity and aid organizations compete with each other for donations. What counts here is media coverage, in order to create public awareness and subsequently raise money.

Unfortunately, however, Frevel says that in Germany the willingness to donate has dropped over the last two years. "It's mostly old people who still give money, and they usually donate more, on average, than they used to," he said.

"Most people these days are spurred to react after seeing victims of some natural catastrophe on TV," Frevel said, adding that this emergency sector has actually seen an increase in donations in recent years while other aid organizations have seen a decline. He believes there's a direct connection between a person's willingness to donate and the media coverage a charity gets, giving the example of special gala shows that crowd the media coverage in the immediate days after a catastrophe.

"The real catastrophes only begin once an event doesn't get any more regular coverage," said Frevel, adding that this is the time when aid is crucial for a sustainable recovery.

Celebrities as political activists

It's exactly this situation that Hollywood actor Sean Penn has criticized. At the international donor conference for the victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the international community pledged some $10 billion (7.7 billion euros). Yet, Penn has said that hardly any of this money has actually arrived in the country.

Shakira visitng a charity project in Colombia. Copyright: DW 2012, Fotograf: Tobias Käufer*** Copyright: DW 2012, Tobias Käufer

Shakira has raised funds for schools in her native Colombia

With his J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), Penn has become a political activist in Haiti. He has criticized the government's reconstruction efforts and the slow work of the international aid organizations.

Proving that his actions speak just as loud as his words, Penn's foundation is currently tearing down the presidential palace in the capital, Port-au-Prince, a structure that was utterly destroyed by the quake, while at the same time building simple homes in a poor area of the city.

Penn believes that if the money promised by the international community had arrived and had been used to provide Haitians with clean water, the current cholera epidemic would never have happened.

Monitoring the celebrity foundations

Frevel says Penn's criticism can only be believed because the actor himself is very involved in the reconstruction efforts. At the same time, the Adveniat spokesperson is strict when it comes to monitoring the celebrity foundations.

"The same standards that donors expect from a normal NGO must also be the same requirements for any celebrity foundation," he said.

The danger of a celebrity charity, however, can be that a fading star takes his or her own foundation down with them, the most recent example being Lance Armstrong's Livestrong cancer foundation. Now that Armstrong has been convicted of systematic doping during his cycling career, donations might soon dry up.

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