August 27, 2006

Cynics mock, charities defend stars aiding Africa

By Mike Collett-White and Mabvuto Banda

LONDON/MPHANDULA, Malawi (Reuters) - Madonna feels
responsible for the children of the world and has found herself
a "big, big project" to help orphans in Malawi.

Gwyneth Paltrow declares "I am African" in a new
advertisement for a charity working in Africa.

The continent has long been a favorite destination for
celebrity campaigners, going back to 1954 when Danny Kaye
became UNICEF's goodwill ambassador.

U2's Bono and fellow Irish rocker Bob Geldof are Africa
veterans, and more recently Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have
brought Hollywood gloss to the continent.

But the latest flood of stars searching for a good cause
has prompted a collective groan in the press and among
bloggers, as people question their methods and motives.

"We are on the verge of farcical at this point," said
Michael Wolff, columnist for Vanity Fair, when asked about
Africa's popularity among famous performers.

"This has become just a part of the public relations play
book. Everybody has a PR person and every PR person says 'which
country do you want to adopt?'."

Aid groups hit back, blaming the media for creating the
cult of celebrity in the first place and arguing that by
discouraging stars from adopting good causes they are
endangering vulnerable people's lives.

Madonna's charity plans were announced in an interview with
Time magazine, which itself pointed out that for someone who
has never been to Africa "the whole enterprise has the pungent
aroma of a coordinated act of publicity."

The fact that orphans at a planned care center in Malawi
will be taught a curriculum based on Spirituality For Kids, a
group linked to the Kabbalah school of mysticism to which
Madonna adheres, could add to the cynicism.

But to people in Mphandula, where the center is to be
built, such arguments are unimportant.

"All I know is that she is rich and a very compassionate
mother. She is our mother now," said village headman Mphandula,
who had never heard of Madonna. "It is a gift from God."


Paltrow's appearance in African beads and with painted
stripes on her cheek above the words "I Am African" drew online
blogs of derision. "Right Gwynnie. And I'm Martian," said one.

Michael Musto, celebrity columnist for the Village Voice,
added: "The Gwyneth thing was kind of laughable. So many
celebrities are jumping on the Africa bandwagon, like they
descend on a hot restaurant -- because it's cool."

But Leigh Blake, founder of AIDS charity Keep A Child Alive
( for which Paltrow appeared, reacted
angrily to what she said was damaging cynicism.

"From my perspective I can assure you there are hundreds of
thousands alive today because of the work of all these
celebrities," she told Reuters.

"They (media commentators) can't imagine for one second
that these people they dehumanize actually care about poor

"The truth is, the media created this monster (of
celebrity) and we in the world of charity are forced to use

Blake said the media had an important role to play in
helping charities raise awareness and funds, but should beware
of attacking celebrities with a cause.

"Don't put off the artists we can get on board," she said.

Deborah Tompkins of ActionAid argued the media was in fact
becoming less cynical in covering aid issues.

"From a media perspective, I don't think we need
celebrities any more," she said. "The media ... will often find
the stories about the real people living the issues much more
interesting than stories about celebrities talking about the

Like Rosemary Chikanda, mother of four who is HIV positive
but cannot access free life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs.

"I don't know Madonna. What I only know is that she is a
rich musician who has come to help us," she said in Mphandula.
"Whoever this woman is, God bless her because finally I will
have someone to look after my children.

"My husband died five years ago and I know I am next and
this center is my only hope."

(Additional reporting by Rebecca Harrison in Johannesburg)