Media outlets in Malawi and around the world have been abuzz with the “scandal” surrounding pop star Madonna’s recent visit to the country to tour the ten schools (or classrooms, depending on who you ask) her charity, Raising Malawi, has built over the past couple of years. The “scandal” erupted after Madonna sent President Joyce Banda an informal, hand-written note requesting to meet with the President and then later complained to the press about having to check-in on departure from Kamuzu International Airport like a normal person. President Banda responded with a formal public statement denouncing Madonna’s charity, character, and musical talent. This on top of previous accusations of mismanagement by the President’s sister, Anjimile Oponyo, who was hired to head the now-defunct Raising Malawi Academy for Girls.
If only Celebrity Deathmatch were still around so they could settle this once and for all. (“Development Deathmatch” spin-off, anyone??)
This beef between the President and the pop star is the latest development in the larger backlash against celebrity involvement in humanitarian aid and development – from George Clooney in Sudan, to Ben Affleck in the DRC, to Bono everywhere. In her public statement, President Banda noted that “among the many things that Madonna needs to learn…is the decency of telling the truth…[not] that she is building schools in Malawi when she has actually only contributed to the construction of classrooms.” Banda also criticized Madonna’s expectation for “Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude”, simply because she has adopted two children from Malawi. Eunice Kazembe, the Malawi Minister of Education, leveled her own criticism at the pop star, saying that, while her country is grateful for the assistance, an individual should not “go to some remote part of Malawi and start doing whatever… She promised an academy and we agreed on standards but she just changed her mind on the project without consulting us.”
President Banda, Ms. Kazembe, and the numerous other critics of celebrities without borders, have a valid point. Transparency, accountability, and the White-Savior Industrial Complex are certainly issues of concern when it comes to celebrity involvement in development and humanitarian aid. But these same issues also arise with the work of larger charitable groups and NGOs. Why is it, then, that so much attention and criticism is heaped on individual celebrities? Why do we not routinely take larger organizations with bigger budgets and wider reach to task on these issues?
Maybe it’s because the media is more interested in these high-profile (and high-profit) stories. Maybe it’s just easier to pick on an individual than an entire organization. Whatever the reason, we’d do well to cast the same critical eye and draw the same attention to the actions of all actors in the aid and development sectors, not just those with a pretty face.