Watch this video made by Global Citizen, and tell me what you think.
It’s Valentine’s day. And among the online advertisements for anti-Valentine events that appear to be somewhat fashionable this year what I have stumbled across without warning – and reluctantly, might I add – is this Valentine’s-themed campaign promoting Global Citizen’s core values and messages. Some to tick off the list include alleviating extreme poverty; human rights and sustainable living. Oh, and a handful of topless guys – and one single woman, naturally (which brings out a whole other gender discourse) – expressing their boyfriend material-ness, and general sex appeal. Is this what humanitarian appeals and global citizenship have now come to represent? I fear so.
“Hey girl. I stand up for human rights, but I’ll lay down with you anywhere…”
Development made sexy is arguably a postmodern, post-humanitarian, highly complex approach for humanitarian appeals and campaigning promoted by NGOs in the attempt to fundraise and raise awareness of certain humanitarian issues and causes from poverty to HIV/AIDS, women’s rights to water security and sustainable living.
Indeed, this method is an extremely effective and creative alternative to raising awareness of such issues when comparing it to the previous method of ‘Poverty Pornography’, which exploits the ideas of Africa-pessimism, for example using close-up images of starving children, with flies swarming around their eyes, or highlighting their pot-bellies, which are a casual result of malnutrition (Cameron and Haanstra, 2008; Scott, 2014). There is a shift from previously exploiting the vulnerable and distant others of the ‘Global South’, which has been known for generating ‘compassion fatigue’ (Scott, 2014) among Northern publics, whereby the routinisation of images and stereotypes causes a sense of de-sensitisation to such suffering, to a more optimistic, forward approach of using positive assets and even humour to promote development issues.
There is a however.
This progressive shift can also be critiqued. As Cameron and Haanstra (2008) questions, does this approach truly consider the structural factors which create and maintain such social inequality and injustice? By making development somewhat more “attractive” are we not just naively simplifying the wider, more complex issues at hand, such as the social, economic, historical contentions? In addition, are we not using the notion of exploitation, just through a different lens?
If we take the discourse of celebrity humanitarianism, it can be argued that celebrities simply have their own agenda to promote their individual brand within the public sphere and do not appear to have the necessary connection or relations with the NGO and the cause, which not only lacks in authenticity and integrity, but one may also openly critique how ignorant and ill-informed the celebrity is to be the face of a campaign for an humanitarian crises (Chouliaraki, 2012). And by being the face of the campaign, are we not simply being allured by the celebrity because of their fame and popularity as opposed to the cause they – allegedly – appear to be representing.
Look to the Stars in an interesting site, which lists the celebrities partnered with charities. Taking Scarlett Johansson as a prime example, it indicates that she has worked with charities such as Oxfam, having been an ambassador for eight years, and been involved in events such as Make Poverty History. The phenomenally edited photograph (above) thereby illustrates the qualms with celebrities intervening in humanitarian work, and the overall limitations of making development sexy.
One of the lines within the video include: “Hey girl. I stand up for human rights…but I’ll lay down with you anywhere…” along with: “You know what they say about guys with small eco-prints…big hearts.” I mean, aren’t they just the most cheesy, development-themed chat up lines you’ll ever hear?
Which brings us to our key question: What is the best approach to representing the authenticity of NGOs and actors of agency without appearing too patronising, ill-informed, or capitalising on the suffering of distant others?
This may appeal to all the single gals and guys looking for a date this Valentine’s – and if you do succeed, congratulations. But this type of method is perhaps too short term, too concerned with aesthetic, and simply not lacking in enough depth to tackle the more complex matters at large. That being said, it can be argued that celebrities do also bring to light global, humanitarian issues which can, albeit to some degree, encourage political and social engagement (Brockington, 2014:2), which NGOs – particularly smaller, lesser-known NGOs – may not have the capacity or ability to do so alone. Perhaps, Global Citizen, you should look to create more simple advertisements like this, but with more long-term effects.
Cameron, J, & Haanstra, A. (2008), ‘Development Made Sexy: how it happened and what it means’, Third World Quarterly, 29, 8, pp. 1475-1489, Business Source Complete, EBSCO host, viewed 14 February 2017.
Chouliaraki, L., 2012. “The Theatricality of Humanitarianism A Critique of Celebrity Advocacy.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 9 (1), 1—21.