They can’t call it the Dark Continent anymore—not with the cumulative megawattage of so many celebrities clustered around it.
That’s right: Africa the Hollywood Cause is back, and it’s got so much star power behind it that you’d think it was the ’80s all over again.
But so many years after “We Are the World,” many are wondering: why Africa, why now?
“To be honest, the free publicity has a particular attraction for some, but it’s also Africa’s needs which would drive an altruistic person to highlight, and there are some things happening in Africa which have upped the ante,” said Paul Miller, head of Catholic Relief Services’ Africa team, listing HIV/AIDS, AIDS orphans, the wars in Congo and the war in Darfur as some of the continent’s most pressing issues.
And celebs do seem to be keeping up with the headlines. Ethiopia, the recipient of 1985’s Live Aid concert, is again in trouble, now the victim of a deadly drought and growing food crisis. Jolie and Pitt may have kicked off the current round of Tinseltown’s Africa consciousness last year when they adopted their baby daughter Zahara from Ethiopia.
Malawi suffered a severe food shortage in 2005, raising only about a third of the crops required to feed its population, and UNICEF has raised warnings about malnutrition among Malawian children, who count 1 million orphans among their number, largely because of AIDS. Madonna followed in Brangelina’s footsteps this year when she began the process of adopting a baby boy from Malawi while donating $3 million to build an orphanage there.
And with President Bush taking the unusual step last year of labeling it a genocide, the Darfur crisis is front and center in people’s minds.
This year, Clooney has not only traveled to Africa but repeatedly pleaded with lawmakers and the public to help end the crisis in Darfur, where a government-supported militia group has engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing that has killed an estimated 400,000 and displaced 2.5 million since 2003.
U2 frontman Bono has also stepped up his Africa efforts this year. While the superstar has been promoting a plethora of African causes non-stop for decades, in 2006, he and Kennedy scion Robert Sargent Shriver III founded Product Red , which donates the sales of affiliated products like Converse, The Gap and Apple Computer to fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, all diseases ravaging Africa.
Others say Hollywood’s favorite politician, Bill Clinton, who has been using his time promoting HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa through the William J. Clinton Foundation, gets credit for helping to draw attention back to Africa.
“I think Bill Clinton has a lot to do with making Africa front and center in America with his crusades with the drug companies and getting affordable drugs in Africa,” said Morris Reid, general manager of PR company Westin-Rinehart and former aide to deceased Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.
Reid also gives credit to the world’s richest man, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has spent fortunes focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Caroline Schaefer, deputy editor of US Weekly, said Clooney re-started the Africa cause among celebrities this year by going to Sudan.
“Celebrities live in this world where nothing they do is private anymore, so they understand they’re going to get publicity, but a lot of their lifestyle probably feels very superficial—going to parties, making movies—so to give back in some way feels rewarding to them. Normal people can’t give $3 million to Malawi like Madonna is, but if you have the means, it feels rewarding,” she said.
Experts on Africa—who have seen the perpetually troubled continent relegated to media sidelines for years after Live Aid—aren’t surprised that the cradle of mankind is getting so much attention right now from stars like Jolie and Madonna and Clooney, though they disagree on how much good it does.
“It helps their self-image and their it makes them feel like they’re doing something good, and it reverberates among their fan base,” said Peter Schwab, professor of political science at the State University of New York in Purchase, N.Y., and author of books on Africa.
But Schwab says celebs also choose Africa to avoid the complex politics of getting involved in the Middle East and Asia.
“[Africa causes are] a more simplified way of expressing their humanity. What the entertainers are doing is adopting children and dropping $3 or $4 million to countries in gratitude that’s not going to have any impact whatsoever. When you’re talking about a country like Malawi that has an average lifespan of 36 years and a tremendous AIDS rate, what is $3 million going to do for AIDS? Even without the graft and political corruption?”
Schwab also seems to wonder why the rich and famous don’t seem to take notice of Nigeria.
“Nigeria’s been in a terrible situation since Biafra (the Nigerian 1967-1970 civil war), but I haven’t noticed the entertainment community directing itself to Nigeria, one of the poorest countries in the world and most corrupt. I think they’ll lose interest in Africa over time.”
Miller also said there’s hope that Africa will remain in the limelight for some time to come.
“We see some evidence that celebrities are sticking with an issue not just as one-time thing or at a critical time in their careers,” he said. “There are cycles to the interest in Africa, but there are those who want to draw attention to world issues and are confronting the problems that Africa has, and that’s something that won’t go away.”