Celebrity advocacy and development

Is a good cause helped by a well-known face rooting for it?

Charitable causes have increasingly begun to enlist celebrities as brand ambassadors these days, with mixed effects. For every Emma Watson giving impassioned speeches about gender equality, there are dozens of other public figures who live with their feet in their mouths. More importantly, the association of a famous name is no guarantee that a charitable cause will make lasting change in the face of complex global problems. How did we get to the point where entertainers from Bono to Angelina Jolie became the face of social and environmental justice?

Daniel Brockington, professor at the University of Manchester, believes that the increasing prominence of celebrities in charitable initiatives is a symptom of a larger pattern: the rising dependence of NGOs on corporate interests. In a February 2014 paper in Third World Quarterly, Brockington analysed interviews and data collected from both sides of the charity-celebrity divide, from NGO employees to journalists, agents and public relations officials in the UK and the USA. In addition, Brockington presented a history of charity-celebrity partnerships, beginning with the first Live Aid concert held in 1985. What Brockington found was that such partnerships have become increasingly systematised, as NGOs comb databases for suitable celebrity sponsors. One impetus behind that search is competition for corporate funding, which NGOs can draw if they promise added glamour to corporates: a glimpse of the rich and famous.

Brockington emphasises that celebrity involvement is a marginal factor when it comes to the effects that NGOs actually have on the ground. “The value of this account is that it delineates the limits of interest in the topic for development scholars,” he says. However, he acknowledges that the clouding of NGO functioning with corporate and celebrity agendas is becoming an issue of increasing importance, and pushes for similar research within the global South.


Dan Brockington. 2014. The production and construction of celebrity advocacy in international development, Third World Quarterly, 35:1, 88-108, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2014.868987.

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2015 Mar