Devils and Details

October 23, 2008

George Clooney’s people have still not contacted my people over the great “Put Up or Shut Up” debate he proposed last year. George has now at least been to Darfur (albeit for about 24 hours before being struck down by diarrhoea and having to be smuggled back to the comforts of the Rotana Hotel in Khartoum, wearing a disguise of a UN cap, and carrying his own bags through the lobby – so my source with the UN numberplates tells me – but that’s another story). Anyway, this is not the time for another cheap shot although it seems that celebrity activists have been getting the goat of a few fellow bloggers…
Alex de Waal, who makes more sense about Sudan than pretty much anyone else I have read on the subject, has Mr Clooney and Mia Farrow in his sights for World Affairs journal…

In June, Farrow approached the private security company Blackwater to see if they were ready to go to Darfur. On September 14, 2006, George Clooney spoke to the UN Security Council, just two weeks before the African peacekeeping force was scheduled to end its mission without any UN replacement in sight. He warned, “After September 30th you won’t need the UN. You will simply need men with shovels and bleached white linen and headstones.” According to Clooney, Darfur’s very existence depends upon our continued attention. “If we turn our heads and look away and hope they will disappear, then they will.”
Of course, Clooney’s predictions were off the mark—the UN didn’t come and violent fatalities in Darfur during all of 2006 were somewhere around 4,000, nearly half of them government soldiers and militiamen.

Over at Scarlett Lion, it’s celebrity photographer Rankin in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Rankin will go back to London and tell stories about Oxfam containers and refugees and rape and poverty. He’ll throw in the standard I-was-energized-by-their-hope-and-humility bit. Maybe he’ll get some more people to donate money or learn about Congo who normally wouldn’t. And maybe this will change some things for some people.
But change isn’t about a two week trip and then a press conference. Change is about long term, sustained interest and committment. The photographers at VII have been doing work in Congo for ages. They are looking people in the eye and asking their names. They are coming, leaving, but always coming back. They will outlast Rankin or Martens. They will take images people don’t want to see and provide news some people think doesn’t exist.

It surely has to be a welcome thing that the likes of Rankin, Mia Farrow and George Clooney have got involved. Precious few people give a toss about African civil wars and it is down to the work of filmstars and a few musicians that Darfur has generated headlines far beyond its fair share (based on comparisons with deathtolls in the DRC etc). If it takes Michelle Collins (a second-rate British soap “star” – for my overseas readers) to visit Kenya to highlight hunger, then so be it. (Incidentally, her trip for a charity was hurriedly cut short because a Sunday paper was about to reveal lurid details about her lovelife, according to my sources with the NGO T-shirts. Officially, she was unwell.) A story read by millions in The Sun is worth a lot more in terms of raising money and putting pressure on world leaders to do something than my output in, say, the deep inside pages of The Times.
The problem is when that “something” is the wrong thing and when celebrities go beyond the simple brand-building and start talking about no-fly zones and intervention forces. In Darfur, the involvement of celebrities has raised a series of red herrings. While saner voices were saying we need to be pushing for real, meaningful peace talks, the debate was driven into a peacekeeping dead end last year by the Save Darfur coalition and its famous supporters. More reasoned argument just couldn’t get on to the news pages.
Celebrities can make a difference – but they should stay out of the detail.