Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, June 26

Vanity Fair and celebrity advocacy

Vanity Fair's new issue devoted to Africa, which Lawrence, wrote about below, has received a fair bit of attention. I thought a couple of reactions were worth linking to here. The first is from a blog by Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at Harvard Law's Berkman Center. He makes the point, among others, that for an issue that claims to be highlighting the achievements of "71 Africans who are defying the status quo", maybe it would have been nice to have paired a couple of them with a Western celebrity on the cover, instead of the celebrity-celebrity combos they went with.

There's also an interesting discussion on the Darfur blog of the Social Science Research Council, a good source generally for analysis from Program Director Alex De Waal and others. In comments to a brief post on the Vanity Fair issue, De Waal examines the question of celebrity advocacy on behalf of African causes. He takes a balanced view, saying you can look at it as a "balance sheet" between bad effects and good ones. In some cases - he suggests the work that Bono has done on trade and debt - celebrity advocacy gives intelligent analysis a prominence it wouldn't achieve otherwise. In others cases, relatively uninformed analysis by celebrities can be misleading and harmful (Darfur advocacy, it would seem, falls in the latter category). Basically, celebrities bring attention to a problem, but unless the right response to the problem is very simple (and in most of these cases it isn't), that attention can be helpful or counterproductive depending on the quality of the analysis.

Of course most of the critical responses to the VF issue probably come from people who haven't actually read the articles (I hadn't looked at any until just now) and I'm sure many of the articles are quite good, or at least okay. The one-paragraph responses Bono gets from Presidential candidates on Africa policy could certainly be a little more substantial, but it's not any more cursory, for example, than the policy summaries the Council on Foreign Relations website has been doing for the candidates (and they haven't done Africa policy yet). Nevertheless, I think that "judging a magazine by its cover", as Zuckerman puts it, is a perfectly acceptable enterprise in this case.

2 comments:

Harald H. said...

I actually read the issue (since I was going to write a review) and most of the articles were not at all good. Exotism (Tom Freston/Jonas Karlsson), islamophobia (Hitchens), overall lack of statistical and historical knowledge, ego-boosting marketing of "brand" of one's person (Pitt, Clinton and others) etc etc. Wainaina is really good, and Junger is OK. The rest is counterproductive in my eyes, as is the publication over all.

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