Global Development Institute Blog

By Robert Watt, PhD researcher, SEED

Bono & Ali Hewson for Louis Vuitton

Surveys show that the British public is wrong about nearly everything. One more topic should be added to this list of falsehood: celebrity. Just as we vastly overestimate the level of unemployment, the number of immigrants and the rate of teen pregnancy, so too we greatly overemphasise the public appetite for celebrity. As Dan Brockington explained in his Global Development seminar, even though research shows that surprisingly few people care for celebrities, these ‘popular’ figures still matter in development.

Since the early 2000s, celebrity in development has become a professional endeavour. Most large development NGOs now have a dedicated celebrity liaison officer on the payroll. Celebrities’ agents tend to advise their clients to do charity work for a few days a year, which could involve working on development issues. Getting a celebrity involved with a carefully designed event can potentially garner media attention for a development NGO’s cause. But the limited public appetite for celebrity-related content means that celebrity-in-development is about much more than generalised publicity.

Celebrities can enable access to high-level figures in government. Whereas the public may not be that bothered by yet another celebrity feature, political elites can be very keen to meet someone famous. Witness Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell embracing the Nepalese Prime Minister in the name of development. Equally, influential people in corporations take notice of celebrity. Corporate sponsors can be crucial to a development charity’s fundraising, and celebrity involvement can spark brand-building opportunities for them. Thus ‘ethical’ clothing, designer bags, climate change campaigning and charity donations all come together in images of U2 singer Bono in Africa, for Louis Vuitton.

It is nice to think that everything is all about us. But with celebrity in development, the activity is much more about them: the elites.

Celebrity invokes a powerful idea of popularity. Famous people act as a symbol of public affiliation, even when it is not necessarily there. The myth of generalised appeal is enough to hook the elites. Those in government and business may be privileged in high-level office, but they overestimate the extent of our appetite for celebrity just like we do. As Brockington warns, celebrity-in-development’s dynamics of elite enthusiasm and public disaffection could be contributing to a post-democratic society. If celebrities ‘play development’ through pandering to powerful minorities, while bypassing the rest of us who are bored, then that is a problematic trend.

Like me, you might be concerned about the rise of a celebrity culture. But the problem is not actually quite the one I thought it was. If you listen to Dan Brockington, it is not majority tastes we should be worried about, but the way that celebrity carries influence amidst political hierarchy and corporate power.

Robbie is a PhD researcher, focussed on the moral political economy of the carbon offset market. Meet Robbie.