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date: 24 May 2022

Celebrities in International Affairs

Abstract and Keywords

Celebrity engagement in global “helping” is not a simple matter of highly photogenic caring for needy others across borders; it is a complex relationship of power that often produces contradictory functions in relation to the goals of humanitarianism, development, and advocacy. This article argues that celebrities are acting as other elite actors in international affairs: investing considerable capital into processes that are highly political. It traces the emergence and practices of the elite politics of celebrities in North-South relations, an evolution made possible by recent changes in aid practices, media, and NGOs, then considers exemplary cases of Angelina Jolie in Burma, Ben Affleck in the Democractic Republic of Congo, and Madonna in Malawi. These celebrity practices as diplomats, experts, and humanitarians in international affairs illustrate the diverse and contradictory forms of engagement by celebrity “helpers” in North-South relations.

Keywords: humanitarianism, celebrity, international affairs, North-South relations, development, NGOs, media, Third World, aid practices, elite politics


Celebrities are now considered influential actors in international affairs, particularly in the shaping of North-South relations. The high visibility presence and varying humanitarian activities of celebrities have become topics of considerable debate in academic circles and mainstream media. Their presence is lauded for drawing extensive media attention and building popular support, yet derided for promoting superficial and misguided interventions across borders. Littler (2008) used the term “global do-gooding” to describe a particular type of celebrity response to suffering at a distance—one that “generates a lot of hype and PR but is relatively insignificant in relation to international and governmental policy” (240). However, the actual practices of celebrities are quite diverse and function at multiple levels. Instead of relative insignificance, celebrities as elite actors have varied and even contradictory impacts on the politics and processes of helping as part of North-South relations. In the South celebrities perform site visits, establish development organizations, serve international governmental organizations, and behave as “disaster tourists.” In the North they act as witnesses, ambassadors, fund-raisers, and activists. While celebrities have been involved in humanitarianism for decades, academic scholarship has only recently begun to take them seriously for their ability to reach popular and elite audiences—building authority, legitimacy, and influence—and to impact local and global processes of governance. “Do-gooding” works across public-private divides, and our empirical examples suggest that it interacts in interesting ways with Western foreign policymaking (e.g., Ben Affleck’s congressional appearances in the United States), global governance (e.g., Angelina Jolie’s work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with Burmese refugees), and local governmental policy (e.g., the use of Madonna’s projects in Malawian political debates). The study of celebrity in international affairs can bring into focus the debates over agenda setting and the conflicts over the practices of transnational politics that constitute the elite political arena of North-South relations with which celebrities themselves must engage.

We argue that celebrity politics are elite politics, and as such they offer all of the opportunities of resources, both financial and attention—and all the pitfalls of undemocratic agenda setting. This includes supporting the interests of Western, typically business, elites (see Brockington 2014b), while limiting the participation of the “others” they are supposed to be “helping” with their “do-gooding” (Littler 2008). In international fora and decision-making venues, celebrities are found speaking on behalf of publics in the Global South to politicians, donors, and corporate sponsors. To be sure, the field of international affairs has never been a realm of mass politics but tended toward the elite, business, and capital-possessing interests long before celebrities entered the scene. Gaining a meaningful understanding of celebrities as elite actors with the ability to shape North-South relations requires a grounded, case-by case study to provide the empirical evidence for successful theory building about whether they can open up space for more democratic participation by amplifying the voices of “other” actors who are typically left unheard in the negotiations of international affairs.

This article traces the emergence and practices of celebrities as diplomats, experts, and humanitarians in the arena of North-South “helping,” an evolution made possible by recent changes in aid practices, media, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Celebrities are acting as other elite actors in international affairs, investing considerable capital, both material and symbolic, in processes that are highly political, typically in the politics of “others” through North-South relations. Driessens (2013) draws on Bourdieu’s field theory to argue that celebrity is not actually a mere subset of symbolic capital, but constitutes a distinct form of celebrity capital that is based on “recurrent media representations or accumulated media visibility” (550). Reflecting on the social theory of celebrity, in which “celebrity is primarily a matter of the accumulation and distribution of attention” (van Krieken 2012, 54), Driessens argues that celebrity capital works like other fungible capitals and can move across different fields as well. His claim is that celebrity capital “can be converted into economic capital as money (e.g., through merchandising), into social capital as valuable contacts (e.g., through increased access to previously closed networks), into symbolic capital as recognition (e.g., when one’s fame is recognized in a specific social field) or into political capital as political power (e.g., by being an elected official)” (2013, 555). Here we consider how celebrities as elite actors are able to convert their capital into economic, political, and social resources that are allocated in support of their pet causes and shape North-South relations.

Just as celebrity constitutes a particular kind of fungible capital, it also wields various forms of power. Celebrities are legitimate actors in North-South “helping” with the expectation of exerting a productive, cooperative “power with” local recipients and stakeholders, yet the power they wield reinforces global and sometimes local power elites. While we will not repeat the in-depth theoretical discussion of what kind of power the celebrity itself wields in North-South “helping,” as is the focus in Partzsch (2015), the main argument is useful for thinking about the power of celebrities in international affairs. Partzsch (2015) argues that celebrity engagement could be considered as either a “power over” others in the Weberian sense of power (coercion and manipulation), or as a “power with” in the Arendtian sense (cooperation and learning). She concludes that while celebrity activism is depicted in the media as “power with,” as the celebrities are imagined as “do-gooders who act in the common good” (Partzsch 2015, 181), a comparison of celebrity power suggests that they are typically exerting “power over” that does not reflect any consensus across stakeholders and instead reinforces the advantage of powerful interests. We use Partzsch’s (2015) theorizing of celebrity power and present exemplary cases of celebrity practices in international affairs as diplomats, experts, and humanitarians that demonstrate this complex contradiction in power.

Some of the literature on celebrity do-gooding focuses on the celebrity figure as a mobilizing device, raising awareness and funds from the mass public to connect Northern publics with causes in the Global South. For example, supporters of celebrities as international actors, like Cooper (2008a, 2008b), suggest that celebrities can be an innovative, positive force in “changing the world” by forging new links across contexts. However, other contemporary scholarship examining the empirical practices of celebrity engagement asserts that populist celebrity advocacy marks disengagement between the public and politics across North and South. Celebrity advocacy, argues Brockington (2014a), is the terrain of elites in the North, in spite of popular misconceptions that celebrities are successful because of their appeal to “the people.” Critics like Littler (2008) and Kapoor (2013) argue that celebrities appeal to “the people” by playing with the humanitarian needs of “others”—effectively selling the poor for profit in global capitalist relations—making celebrity practices inherently destructive for the South. Thus, we may question whether these world-changing forces are new or positive.

Social theorists like van Krieken (2012) chart convincingly that celebrity politics is nothing new, and that the history of celebrity engagement in North-South relations runs alongside “development” and the drive toward “modernity,” intimately linked with colonial logics. Therefore, we might assume that contemporary celebrity and North-South relations remain intertwined with both the constructive forces of “helping” and the destructive relations of exploitation. This article focuses on the figure of the celebrity as constituting an intellectual space where concepts of authenticity, accessibility, agenda setting, popularity, and brand can also be interrogated. These concepts lead to the following questions: How do we make “celebrity” a theoretical concept that helps us to understand something about the constitution of international affairs? How does looking at celebrity influence our understanding of “traditional” perspectives on agenda setting and elites, practices of North-South relations, and politics across borders? Is do-gooding a mark of authenticity of the “real” person behind the persona, and if so, why are some humanitarian actions more sincere than others? How do celebrities wield their capital to challenge or reinforce elite politics in their engagement with humanitarianism? Do celebrity diplomacy, expertise, and humanitarianism increase accessibility for nonexpert publics? Is humanitarianism part of a celebrity brand that helps to sell something more effectively?

The Emergence and Practices of Celebrities in International Affairs: Diplomats, Experts, and Humanitarians

Historically, the ways in which celebrities have engaged in humanitarianism are numerous: raising money for charity, visiting with stakeholders and victims, and lobbying. Celebrities have long provided material benefits to international organizations and private charities. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) began its program of involving celebrities as goodwill ambassadors in the 1950s starting with American actor Danny Kaye; other famous UNICEF goodwill ambassadors are Audrey Hepburn, Liv Ullman, and Mia Farrow (Wheeler 2011). Celebrities became further engaged with the United Nations under UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who expanded the program and wanted goodwill ambassadors to promote a positive view of the organization (Cooper 2008b). In this period celebrities moved beyond product endorsement and movie promotions to loftier ambitions based on ideas of “self-importance”: “whereas rock stars, actors, or models once had influence without legitimate, governmental power, [in recent decades] they assumed a kind of moral authority once associated with sages or charismatic leaders” (Cashmore 2006, 218). With their intimate associations with institutions of global governance, celebrities became immersed in the transnational politics of humanitarianism, aid, and international development. Beginning from this early history, celebrities have become recognized for acting as diplomats, experts, and humanitarians, reflecting the expanded scope of practices and sites of engagement.

Celebrity Diplomats

Recent examples, such as Sharon Stone at Davos and George Clooney at the United Nations, illustrate how celebrities are edging deeper into elite spheres of global governance to become envoys for particular causes. These “celebrity diplomats” are individuals with “ample communication skills a sense of mission, and some global reach” who “enter into the official diplomatic world and operate through a matrix of complex relationships with state officials” (Cooper 2008b, 7). This small group of figures incudes celebrities from the North like Bob Geldof, Bono, and Angelina Jolie, who have used their broad cultural appeal to gain access to rarefied spaces on the international stage like the United Nations, the White House, 10 Downing Street, and Davos to discuss Third World debt, poverty, and refugees. As “celebrity diplomats,” celebrities have moved diplomacy and global governance into more prolific and interactive engagement in the mainstream media. In translating their celebrity capital into political capital, these celebrities “have the power to frame issues in a manner that attracts visibility and new channels of communication at the mass as well as the elite levels” (Cooper 2008b, 7). Celebrities also bring the possibility of adopting different tones; their messaging can be “cast in colloquial and sometimes markedly undiplomatic language” (Cooper 2008a, 2). Their dominating presence at the elite levels of global governance and pretexts of visionary leadership have the potential to shape political agendas; “celebrities have become interlocutors and spokespeople for humanitarianism and, as such, are reconfiguring international development agendas in new and often unforeseen ways” (Mostafanezhad 2013, 486). With their ability to mix official and unofficial mechanisms of engagement, celebrity diplomats can either adhere to traditional forms of diplomatic etiquette or use their global stages to be louder advocates for their causes. But their entrance into an elite world will depend on the goodwill and invitation of elite allies, an example of celebrity engagement that depends on ‘“power over” elite allies rather than channeling challenges to the global world order based on the will of the wider public.

Celebrity Experts in North-South Relations

Facing disenchantment with policymakers and dry political talk, conventional wisdom regards the public as turning to celebrity figures to parse complex issues and channel their interests. Celebrity involvement as “experts” has been linked to numerous issues and campaigns, in particular, those related to humanitarianism in Africa. This “expertise” is gained from celebrity junkets, on which cameras follow celebrities on tours of refugee camps, slums, and conflict zones, highlighting the “tragedy” of Africa. As Abrahamsen (2012) argues, celebrity junkets have become more frequent because affect has become increasingly important for understanding how Africa is represented within a global culture of consumption, where celebrities, their brands, and Africa are all part of an emotional experience: “The celebrity is a different kind of expert, whose knowledge is not derived from numbers, deduction, or semi-structured interviews, but from ‘feeling the pain’ of the poor and from offering an emotional connection to the subjects of development” (Abrahamsen 2012, 141). With the emotional pull of affect coupled with deeper engagement with specific issues, celebrities have supplanted experts in mediating the public’s relationship with the complexity of Africa. As Brockington (2012) points out, “claims made on the basis of empathy with the audience, may in fact be read in terms of intellectual expertise, as may claims made on the basis of experience” (20). Therefore, relying on celebrities as guides to North-South relations is risky; celebrity capital is being converted into symbolic capital extending far beyond the field in which the celebrity is recognized as holding expertise. Critically, a celebrity “expert” with the potential for influence is in danger of reproducing colonial and neoliberal tropes and sustaining popular but ineffective solutions.

While recent research suggests that celebrities do not, in fact, sustain media coverage for advocacy (Thrall et al. 2008, 363) and do not engage well with much of the public (Brockington 2014b), these paradoxes do not stop NGOs and decision-makers from investing time and energy in cultivating celebrities as experts.

Celebrity Humanitarians

The term “celebrity humanitarianism” encompasses the expanding field of celebritized forms of global humanitarianism and charity work (Kapoor 2013). The past few years have seen a proliferation of celebrity humanitarians appearing in productions of North-South relations, doing “good” on transnational terrain (de Waal 2008; Hood 2010). A theoretical critique of celebrity humanitarianism is provided in a book by Kapoor (2013), who claims that celebrity legitimates and promotes neoliberal capitalism and global inequality. This polemic draws heavily from the theories of Žižek to argue that celebrity humanitarianism is a moral spectacle that entwines frenetic development NGOs, big business, and sexy stars. Kapoor illustrates how celebrities’ involvement in international development advances the celebrity brand and contributes to a “postdemocratic” political landscape managed by unaccountable elites. The term “postdemocratic” characterizes politics in Western countries, where public participation is dependent on “top-down publicity campaigns” that are directed by political elites, often acting in concert with corporate entities (Crouch 2004, 19–20). Brockington argues that the figure of celebrity has gained a foothold, especially among humanitarian NGOs, as “part of the performance and display of elite-dominated post-democracies” (2014a, 37). This explains the entrenchment of celebrities in transnational networks that include the public, corporate interests, and the media; in this way, celebrity capital is being translated into economic capital for a coterie of elite actors, another example of “power over.” The presence of celebrity humanitarians raises the concern that their practices obfuscate power and privilege, strengthen top-down political processes, and close down disagreement and conflict without popular input (Kapoor 2013, 37). In a more recent iteration, celebrities such as Bono, Madonna, Ben Affleck, and Sean Penn have established their own development organizations, giving them a firmer foundation for engaging in humanitarian activities in the Global South, but also reflecting the deep financial resources that celebrities have access to. Thus, as embodiments of capital, celebrity humanitarians can be seen to benefit from and perpetuate the “postdemocratic order.”

Analytical Framework from Contemporary Academic Debates

Celebrities are now an increasingly studied topic on their own terms, with a history of critical concern about the relationship between celebrities and politics that Wheeler dates back to the German sociologist Leo Lowenthal’s (1944) critique of the replacement of “idols of production,” such as politicians, with “idols of consumption,” such as film stars (Wheeler 2013, 1). Holmes and Redmond specify that the aims of celebrity studies are “to defamiliarize the everyday, and to make apparent the cultural politics and power relations which sit at the center of the ‘taken for granted’” (2010, 3). In particular, political scientists must take up this call to “defamiliarize” celebrities with whom many Western media consumers have become saturated—such as Ben Affleck, Madonna, or Angelina Jolie—in order to make apparent the politics and power relations constituting important interactions in international affairs.

This article relies on an analytical framework to explore celebrities as influential transnational actors by examining their engagement with elite politics located in and across the global South and the donor North. The framework is linked to three relevant literatures: (1) the literature on celebrities and representation of “others” (particularly from media and communications studies, cultural studies, and anthropology); (2) the interdisciplinary literature on aid celebrities (Richey and Ponte 2011) (primarily international development studies and geography); and (3) the emerging literature on new actors and alliances in North-South relations (drawing on political science, international relations, and global studies). Scholarship on celebrity do-gooding in transnational contexts of humanitarianism, development, and diplomacy has been blossoming in diverse specialist and interdisciplinary journals within these three research categories (Brockington 2014a; Chouliaraki 2006, 2013; Dieter and Kumar 2008; Goodman and Barnes 2011; Huliaras and Tzifakis 2010; Littler 2011; Müller 2013; Repo and Yrjölä 2011; Scott 2015; Wheeler 2013). The body of this work seeks to untangle developments in celebrity practices within a context of shifting dynamics between new actors and alliances in aid and global governance institutions of humanitarianism.

Celebrity and Representing the “Other”

Driessens provides a literature review mapping definitions of celebrity, in which “the focus is on celebrity as a social category that captures a position of well-knownness of an individual, however little time it lasts and regardless of the ways it was attained” (2013, 545). Boltanski and Thévenot (1991) define “celebrity” as a state of superiority in a world where opinion is the defining instrument for measuring different orders of “greatness.” In their approach, being a celebrity is characterized by having a widespread reputation, being recognized in public, being visible, having success, being distinguished, and having opinion leaders, journalists and media as your testimonials. While resembling in many ways other forms of charismatic leadership, celebrity differs because of its dependence on social distance and its projection through the media (see the classic discussion in Weber 1968).

Bestowing the power of intercession on celebrities who act between “the people” and “the system” has been a common way of explaining why the mechanism of celebrity is influential for various audiences. A classic text on “the powerless elite” concludes that celebrities are “a transitional phenomenon that identifies the need of the general community for an avenue through which to discuss issues of morality … that are insufficiently or ineffectively handled in the rational sphere of evaluating political power elites” (Alberoni 1972, cited in Marshall 1997, 16). As the paradigms of “people we know so well” who are simultaneously “just like us” and “exemplary,” celebrities have become proxy philanthropists, statesmen, executives, and healers (Marks and Fischer 2002). As Duncombe has illustrated, “The ‘humble roots and common tastes’ celebrity stories not only make this contemporary Pantheon of Gods acceptable to a democratic audience, but they also hold out the promise that this can happen to you” (2007, 108). Celebrities are paradoxically both extraordinary and “ordinary people” (as described in the classic Dyer 1979). Yet the “popular attraction to celebrity fantasies points up to a troubling popular fantasy: life without consequence” (Duncombe 2007, 120).

Celebrity can be read as a performance between the celebrity as benefactor and northern publics for whom the celebrity functions as a proxy philanthropist. Chouliaraki (2013) argues that contemporary humanitarianism is under pressure from economic, political, and technological transformations that have significantly altered the possibilities for global solidarity. She shows how international aid has become instrumentalized as international organizations and NGOs compete for market share and donor funding, while scholars focus on administrative policy rather than critical, normative theory. Simultaneously, argues Chouliaraki (2013), the grand narratives of solidarity have been replaced by individualist projects. This is linked to changes in technology and new media forms in which audiences in the North have become both producers and consumers of public communication that both represents and obfuscates the lives of distant “others” without their consent or input. Solidarity is framed as a problem of communication, and humanitarianism as performance. In documenting changes in humanitarian communication over the past four decades, Chouliaraki (2013) argues that we have moved into the “post-humanitarian” age, in which solidarity is driven by neoliberal logics of consumption and utilitarianism and doing good for “others” depends on doing well for yourself. As Chouliaraki describes, celebrities are at the forefront of this societal shift:

The tearful celebrity, the rock concert, the Twitter hype and the graphic attention are … prototypical performances of post-humanitarianism which limit our resources for reflecting upon human vulnerability as a political problem of injustice and minimizes our capacity of empathy with vulnerable others as others with their own humanity. (2013, 187)

The book also emphasizes that humanitarian communication in new media favors partial, personal readings as opposed to more objective, shared interpretations of humanitarian problems, and consequently is less effective at integrating audiences and providing a shared foundation for collective action (Chouliaraki 2013). Thus, celebrity engagement in humanitarianism would provide the possibility of vicariously participating in the caring activities of our favorite celebrity, while disengaging from the consequential activity of what “really” happens in international development or humanitarianism on the ground.

Aid Celebrities

The celebrity labels used above—humanitarian, diplomat, and expert—signal the variety of practices and therefore growing influence of celebrities in political processes that shape North-South relations. Termed “aid celebrities” (Richey and Ponte 2008), the actors involved in the celebritization of humanitarian aid have received considerable critique from scholars in development studies and geography. Critically, the aid celebrity presence signals a concentration of elite power that has come to characterize the neoliberal landscape.

Recent critical books have taken on aid celebrity interventions in North-South relations. Mapping the field of empirically grounded work on celebrity and development, Brockington (2014a) focuses exclusively on celebrity advocacy and lobbying in international development in the United Kingdom. He examines its history, relationships, consequences, wider contexts, and implications, arguing that celebrity advocacy signals a new aspect of elite rule in which corporations, politicians, and the NGO community have begun to shift agendas to accommodate aid celebrities. A pragmatic conclusion suggests that if development is to better meet the needs of its many stakeholders and recipients, it must negotiate within this new terrain of celebritized relationships. Contributions to Richey (2015) provide new empirical material from case studies to argue that celebrities function as new transnational humanitarian actors in North–South relations, on the basis of what they are actually doing in both North and South. The book demonstrates how little scholarly attention has been paid to the Global South, either as a place where celebrities intervene in existing politics and social processes, or as the generator of celebrities engaged in “do-gooding.”

North–South Relations

Humanitarianism, with or without celebrities, is being conceptually debated, understood, and reworked through a large and diverse academic literature that for the most part is not covered in this brief article (for a selected overview, see Ticktin 2014; Barnett 2011; Fassin 2012; and Waters 2001). International relations scholars use “humanitarianism” with a specific historical reference to the 1864 Geneva Convention’s recognition of an international law of humanitarian principles to govern the moral practice of war. Modern forms of humanitarianism came into being in the post–World War II era establishment of the United Nations and the UN Convention on Refugees. As suggested by the title “The Problems with Humanitarianism,” Belloni (2007) argues that intervention in the domestic affairs of states on the grounds of a shared humanity serves to support the interests of powerful elites in international affairs and to undermine the moral basis of human rights on which this intervention is predicated. The terrain of intervention in humanitarian causes is rapidly changing, with the engagement of new actors, relations, and alliances across geographical, financial, and political distances. But these changes occur in in a field that is under considerable scrutiny for the ways that humanitarianism is “deeply rooted in the colonial beginnings of modernity” (van Krieken 2015, 205), and alongside long-established socioeconomic and political power relations. Therefore, critical scholarship must question the “optimists” (described in Chouliaraki 2013) who lead us to believe that globalization and mediatization are permeating all corners of the globe and “networking” everyone, while leaving isolation, misunderstanding, and callousness as part of a “pre-humanitarian” past (for a useful overview see Robertson 2015). Celebrity power “is mainly exercised invisibly” and relies on spiritual and emotional (see Partzsch 2015, 12), rather than rational, critical, or questioning, engagements.

To analyze the role of celebrities in international affairs, we focus on “North–South relations.” The traditional meaning of the term of course draws from political science descriptions of the relationships that emerged at the end of World War II and during decolonization. Its common usage dates back to the 1970s, when the North, the “wealthy, industrialized nations of the non-communist world,” aligned diplomatically against the “countries of the so-called developing world” in the South (Hansen 1980). While remaining a contested term, North–South relations came to be used commonly in describing trade relations, security policy, diplomacy, development aid, capital flows, or economic integration between states or groups of states. Today it is used to capture differences at multiple levels (from global flows to local communities) and to highlight relationships that are neither spatial nor geographical. There is no “North” as an empirical place; rather, “North” endures as a position in a hierarchy between North and South, across levels and geographies, but particularly in the global economy and institutions of global governance.

Our case review considers celebrity practices in “humanitarianism” or “do-gooding” under the marker “North–South relations.” This is a deliberate choice to connect contemporary celebrity engagement to the past forms of North–South linkage, from slavery and empire to 1970s development as modernization (stemming from the classical Rostowian 1960 “stages of economic growth”) (see also Van Krieken 2015). It is also a deliberate choice to open up the field of scrutiny to include the many other, increasingly relevant, terms of engagement between North and South that fall outside of traditional international development assistance: corporate social responsibility, remittances, consumption-based humanitarianism or “brand aid” (Richey and Ponte 2011), and investment. North–South relations suggest a flow, mobility, and a necessarily transnational context within which to situate the celebrity. The area of humanitarianism has laid bare celebrity intersections with neoliberal policies that include the professionalization of the NGO sector, the reliance on celebrities for publicity, and the marketization of foreign aid (Littler 2008, 2015). Celebrities are seen as responsible for promoting neoliberal development visions that depend on private-public partnerships across a variety of actors, including humanitarian agencies, governments, businesses, and philanthropists. Together with those skeptical of the public impact of celebrities, we argue that the celebrity engagement in global “do-gooding” reflects and perpetuates a postdemocratic politics that has the potential to influence North-South relations, but not always in unilateral or predictable ways. The remaining discussion examines three cases of celebrities in international affairs: Angelina Jolie as a celebrity diplomat, Ben Affleck as a celebrity expert, and Madonna as a celebrity humanitarian.

Case Studies

This section investigates the practices of three celebrities as they intersect with elite politics in interventions in the Global South. While important work on southern celebrities is also emerging (Hood 2010; Mupotsa 2015; Schwittay 2015), we draw on material from the cases in Richey (2015) to chart the Western scope of humanitarianism, in Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Burma-Thai border. Celebrities and their interventions provide an empirical focal point for studying the relations of power that may be reproduced or disputed from one context to another, as well as how celebrity capital is converted into other resources. In their various guises—as diplomats, experts, and humanitarians—these celebrities reflect an entrenchment in elite politics. We choose these cases as embodying the broad scope and potential for the influence of northern actors in the Global South. Celebrities furnish an effective lens for viewing the multiple and diverse relationships that constitute the links forged in humanitarian activities across North and South.

Angelina Jolie in Burma: Celebrity Diplomat

For Cooper (2008b) and others, Angelina Jolie is considered a consummate “celebrity diplomat.” Her access to elite figures and policymaking circles is rivaled only by Bono and Bob Geldorf. In her role as a UNHCR goodwill ambassador, Jolie performs a critical bridging function when she travels to conflict zones in the Global South to report on conditions to the donor North. Her status as interlocutor on behalf of the politics of “others” implies the responsibility of representing their plight, deftly deploying her celebrity capital amid flashing cameras into a form of political capital.

Jolie’s experience of humanitarian travel forms the basis for her performances as a transnational elite actor in diplomatic and decision-making circles. Her work as a goodwill ambassador has taken her to more than forty countries for site visits to refugee camps, giving her a wide scope for her celebrity humanitarianism. In February 2009 Jolie visited Mae La Refugee Camp in the Thai-Burma border zone to help draw attention to ongoing human rights abuses in Burma and to the 147,000 refugees who live in nine camps along the border. Her daylong visit was successful in attracting international media coverage and was applauded by the UNHCR for the worldwide response it drew. With the potential to command media coverage and build morale among the camp refugees, Jolie’s visit was an opportunity to shape North-South relations by framing understandings of the conflict for the mass media public, but also for humanitarian agencies, political actors, and philanthropists.

Through ethnographic research among Burmese refugees and human rights activists in the border area, Mostafanezhad (2013, 2015) analyzed how Jolie’s one-day visit was received by persons living within the camps, as well as in popular global media. She found that the widespread gossip—both in the actual refugee camps and in the media—privileged the re-presentation of Jolie’s sentimental encounter with Burmese exiles, rather than drawing attention to the continued human rights atrocities in Burma. Mostafanezhad (2015) gives the example of meeting Kywe, a young mother of three, the youngest of whom was strapped to her chest in a patchwork sling. Kywe explained that she believed Jolie could help the refugees “because she is interested in us and our issues, so she may help us. She is the one supporting us all the way” (Mostafanezhad 2015, 37). The social solidarity that Kywe describes is similarly articulated by Kyine, who explained: “What I heard is that she visited there as an ambassador for UNHCR. I think she can help people; I feel so cheerful as well because she came here … [celebrities] can [help] because they are the public figures. Let’s take Jolie. She is famous, attractive and a hard worker. That is why she became an ambassador” (Mostafanezhad 2015, 37).

In this situation, Jolie perpetuated a geopolitics of hope that foregrounded sentimental rather than political concerns. As Mostafanezhad argues, “The political is displaced by the individual with celebrity sheen” (2013, 486). The depoliticization of her visit to the camp that emerged in the media obscured the widespread geopolitics of the roots of the crisis that would contextualize the situation of Burmese exiles in the border zone. This might have included deeper engagement with the roots of the refugee crisis that are related to the regime in Myanmar, human rights abuses, and persecution of minority groups. In terms of agenda setting, Jolie’s “intended audience in the North is asked, not what political-economic relationships facilitated this refugee crisis, but rather what to think about Jolie’s compassionate concern” (2015, 36). In this case, the presence of a celebrity affected the interpretation of the refugee situation by sentimentalizing the Global South in a manner that would have consequences in the donor North. Sentimental pulls to materially support the refugees and improve their conditions ignore more durable political responses to the crisis, such as pressuring the Myanmar government to implement human rights and democratic reforms or furthering the Burmese people’s agency in addressing their own plight. With her brief dispatches on behalf of the UNCHR, Jolie’s status as a transnational elite actor is reflected in her “power over” limitations that do not reflect public engagement and has prevented a fuller, more critical understanding of the refugee situation, with potential effects on global governance.

Ben Affleck in the Congo: Celebrity Expert

In addition to practices of celebrity diplomacy, celebrities also seek to enter national debates in the donor North as “experts” based on their site visits or the establishment of development NGOs in the South. Affleck took steps to build expertise through reading and repeated trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he met with grassroots organizations. In 2010 the entertainer cofounded the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) to spur social and economic development in the DRC, “working with and for the people of Eastern Congo” (ECI website). In contrast to Madonna’s Raising Malawi and its focus on the local context, ECI’s objectives are split between the United States and DRC: in the North, Affleck raises funds from elite circles and lobbies political spheres in the United States to shape foreign aid practices; in the South, ECI distributes grants to local partner organizations that work in social and economic issues. This type of activity marshals the experiences and proposals of the celebrity to bear on policymaking processes about aid and foreign policy and privileges their status as transnational elite actors. As the cofounder and leading spokesperson for ECI, Affleck serves as both celebrity humanitarian and expert, speaking on behalf of the Congo to a wider public and political elites in the North through op-eds, media appearances, and speeches.

Behind the scenes, Affleck’s expertise is supported by williamsworks, a strategic consulting firm based in Seattle, Washington, that designed ECI and secured financial and political support. ECI started with enviable financial backing: a multi-million-dollar fund was raised from donors who are listed as “investors,” including Lauren Powell Jobs (wife of Apple founder Steve Jobs), Cindy Hensley McCain (wife of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, she is also described as a cofounder), and the charitable foundation Humanity United (in turn funded by Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay). These funds were amassed prior to ECI’s launch, distorting development processes of evaluation and demonstrated effectiveness. Corporate partnerships have also been forged with Theo Chocolates, TOMS, and Starbucks. Here, Affleck’s experience demonstrates how quickly and efficiently celebrity capital can mobilize the economic and social capital of wealthy and influential contacts to create an organization. Affleck’s capital is able to generate financial resources not only for his development projects in the South, but also for business elites in the North.

Budabin (2015) argues that with this elite network support, Affleck was primed to enter US political circles and build influence. Despite being a relatively new player in the humanitarian politics of Washington, D.C., Affleck quickly established his organization through high-level contacts that provided extensive bipartisan political endorsement. Between 2010 and 2014 he appeared before three congressional hearings related to the DRC, demonstrating the credibility he has earned to address and influence US lawmakers. More than just reporting on his visits and partners’ activities, Affleck seeks to shape US foreign policy toward the DRC by laying out a unique vision that is backed by a white paper and other reports commissioned by his organization. But Affleck is no development expert; to his critics, Affleck’s trips and half dozen years of training have afforded him only a cursory understanding of the country’s situation. The solutions he proposes often reflect hegemonic narratives used to justify Western interventions that have thus far proved ineffective in rebuilding the DRC (see Autesserre 2012). Moreover, ECI’s granting to local community-based organizations challenges and undermines Affleck’s support for state solutions, which better suit audiences of US lawmakers. Affleck’s performance as an expert and his access to economic and political elites may hold implications for local livelihoods and external interventions (aid, trade, and diplomacy) as driven by global policy initiatives. With their potential for influence and access to political capital, celebrity experts threaten development processes by coalescing political and financial elite support in the donor North for celebrity figures, rather than following a path of public consultation and evaluation based in the Global South.

Madonna in Malawi: Celebrity Humanitarian

Celebrity humanitarians play a different type of bridging function when they establish their own NGOs in the Global South and interact with the politics of development on the ground. In these cases, celebrity humanitarians are not beholden to the agendas of global institutions and can formulate unique visions to address development challenges in a site of their choosing. They bring resources from the donor North and engage with local publics and elites to establish development NGOs and longer-term projects. One example is Madonna’s work in Malawi. In 2006 Madonna began a series of efforts to support local orphan care and education with the creation of an organization called Raising Malawi, a sign of economic capital in the same manner as Affleck’s ECI. However, as Driessen (2013) would argue, Madonna’s celebrity capital did not result in symbolic capital that let her move easily between the world of celebrity and the field of development. Instead, her humanitarian initiatives quickly became controversial, both globally and locally.1

While global responses echoed many of the criticisms cited above concerning motives and methods of celebrity figures seeking to better an African country, the local perspective offers a richer picture of the work of a celebrity humanitarian and the possibilities for engendering public discussion around development interventions. Through field research in Malawi, Rasmussen (2015) examined the interpretation of Madonna’s efforts through popular discourses and the activities of her organization, Raising Malawi. Rasmussen found that some Malawians consider Madonna a person who cynically exploits poor Africans to promote her own brand, making grand promises that never materialize. For example, Rasmussen quotes Jimmy, a farmer from Chinkota village, Malawi, where Madonna’s Academy for Girls would have been located: “‘It was so special for someone like her to come visit this place. [ … ] When she came, we expected that our lives would get better … [but] instead of receiving the blessings, we are now worse off. It all turned out very different from what we expected’” (2015, 48). However, to other Malawians, Madonna is a worthy humanitarian who is at least doing something, in contrast to local elites, who are viewed as even more corrupt and self-serving than the global superstar. But in contrast to the example of Jolie above, Madonna’s controversial nature spurred public debate around not only herself, but also the government’s effectiveness.

Rasmussen (2015) argues that against the backdrop of Malawi’s recent democratic transition, Madonna’s efforts became intertwined with larger discussions about Malawi’s relationship to the donor North and the ensuing growth of internationally linked NGOs. The interventions of a celebrity humanitarian raised suspicions about the motivations of foreign development actors who fail to meet local expectations or follow local protocol. These public-private partnerships came under scrutiny regarding Madonna’s self-serving motives, concrete accomplishments, and respect for local voices. But local elites were also held accountable alongside foreign NGOs for benefiting from these partnerships while shortchanging the rest of Malawi. These suspicions were more commonly expressed by the Malawian middle class and elites, who debated whether Madonna’s humanitarianism was genuine or a matter of cynical branding. For example, on an Internet website devoted to “Malawi’s Breaking News and Gossip,” one writer stated, “Madona [sic] should be the one to thank Malawi because she is using Malawi to enrich herself, the dollars that she raises in the name of Malawi do not equate to the amount she has spent on the blocks. The bulk of the money she claims to have been misappropriated was actually spent by herself and her entourage, let her give us the amounts she spent during her visits” (Rasmussen 2015, 58).

In contrast, the rural poor of Malawi were more concerned with their everyday survival and accessing the benefits of Madonna’s charitable efforts; they appreciated the tangible accomplishments of her work in light of the ineffectiveness of self-serving local elites. Here, the study of a celebrity humanitarian provides a lens on the local disruption created by celebrities as transnational elite actors who receive varied responses in recipient communities and provoke debates about development that reveal local power dynamics and diverse agendas. The controversy generated by her presence in Malawi reveals collateral effects of celebrity humanitarianism that cut both ways. In a positive light, Madonna’s efforts focused critical attention on the local politics of development, elitism, and corruption and spurred public discussion on the government’s impotence, an example of a celebrity’s capacity to exercise “power with” stakeholders to coerce other elites to take more efficient action. Indeed, suspicion and disregard heaped on a celebrity humanitarian from the donor North bred further disenchantment with the role played by foreign actors in the Global South.

Conclusion: Elite Politics of Celebrity

This article explored the figure of the celebrity as an influential actor in international affairs, particularly in the shaping of North-South relations. We maintain that the focus of previous scholarship on celebrities’ influence on the mass public in the donor North is misplaced and blurs the presence of elite networks that support, rely on, and sustain celebrities in humanitarianism. Despite expectations that a celebrity will be able to exercise “power with” the recipients and stakeholders, we have shown how the celebrity capital of media coverage results in agenda setting that typically demonstrates “power over” the “others” in the Global South within the changing dynamics of North-South relations. With their entanglement in local, national, and global governance, celebrities are acting as other elite actors in international affairs: converting their capital into economic, social, and political resources that transform the traditional practices of transnational politics without disrupting relations of power. The cases of Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck, and Madonna draw attention to the various ways in which celebrities perform in international affairs. We find that their acquired functions as diplomats, experts, and humanitarians demonstrate the reach and influence of celebrity engagement in elite policymaking circles. The ability of celebrities to exert “power over” North-South relations at the elite level limits their democratic accountability to their publics in both the North and South. The exception among our cases is, perhaps surprisingly, Madonna, whose presence unexpectedly opened a channel for challenging local elites and corrupt aid practices, at least discursively. With North-South relations dominated by a tilt toward the elite, the profitable, and the photogenic, we are challenged in locating the political will of “others.” Without the voices of those affected most by humanitarian debates, interventions will serve neither justice nor efficacy. The material future of local livelihoods in both North and South will suffer for lack of transparency and legitimate authority if elites continue to dominate international affairs under the justification of humanitarianism. Deepening our understanding of celebrities as transnational elite actors will further illuminate the complex web of interactions and power relations that characterizes the contemporary political landscape.


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(1) Madonna’s Kaballah connections came under scrutiny along with questions about her adoption of two children from Malawi. See and