Cynics mock, charities defend stars aiding Africa

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By Mike Collett-White and Mabvuto Banda

LONDON/MPHANDULA, Malawi (Reuters) - Madonna feels responsible for the children of the world and has found herself a "big, big project" to help orphans in Malawi.

Gwyneth Paltrow declares "I am African" in a new advertisement for a charity working in Africa.

The continent has long been a favorite destination for celebrity campaigners, going back to 1954 when Danny Kaye became UNICEF's goodwill ambassador.

U2's Bono and fellow Irish rocker Bob Geldof are Africa veterans, and more recently Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have brought Hollywood gloss to the continent.

But the latest flood of stars searching for a good cause has prompted a collective groan in the press and among bloggers, as people question their methods and motives.

"We are on the verge of farcical at this point," said Michael Wolff, columnist for Vanity Fair, when asked about Africa's popularity among famous performers.

"This has become just a part of the public relations play book. Everybody has a PR person and every PR person says 'which country do you want to adopt?'."

Aid groups hit back, blaming the media for creating the cult of celebrity in the first place and arguing that by discouraging stars from adopting good causes they are endangering vulnerable people's lives.

Madonna's charity plans were announced in an interview with Time magazine, which itself pointed out that for someone who has never been to Africa "the whole enterprise has the pungent aroma of a coordinated act of publicity."

The fact that orphans at a planned care center in Malawi will be taught a curriculum based on Spirituality For Kids, a group linked to the Kabbalah school of mysticism to which Madonna adheres, could add to the cynicism.

But to people in Mphandula, where the center is to be built, such arguments are unimportant.

"All I know is that she is rich and a very compassionate mother. She is our mother now," said village headman Mphandula, who had never heard of Madonna. "It is a gift from God."


Paltrow's appearance in African beads and with painted stripes on her cheek above the words "I Am African" drew online blogs of derision. "Right Gwynnie. And I'm Martian," said one.

Michael Musto, celebrity columnist for the Village Voice, added: "The Gwyneth thing was kind of laughable. So many celebrities are jumping on the Africa bandwagon, like they descend on a hot restaurant -- because it's cool."

But Leigh Blake, founder of AIDS charity Keep A Child Alive ( for which Paltrow appeared, reacted angrily to what she said was damaging cynicism.

"From my perspective I can assure you there are hundreds of thousands alive today because of the work of all these celebrities," she told Reuters.

"They (media commentators) can't imagine for one second that these people they dehumanize actually care about poor people.

"The truth is, the media created this monster (of celebrity) and we in the world of charity are forced to use it."

Blake said the media had an important role to play in helping charities raise awareness and funds, but should beware of attacking celebrities with a cause.

"Don't put off the artists we can get on board," she said.

Deborah Tompkins of ActionAid argued the media was in fact becoming less cynical in covering aid issues.

"From a media perspective, I don't think we need celebrities any more," she said. "The media ... will often find the stories about the real people living the issues much more interesting than stories about celebrities talking about the issues."

Like Rosemary Chikanda, mother of four who is HIV positive but cannot access free life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs.

"I don't know Madonna. What I only know is that she is a rich musician who has come to help us," she said in Mphandula. "Whoever this woman is, God bless her because finally I will have someone to look after my children.

"My husband died five years ago and I know I am next and this center is my only hope."

(Additional reporting by Rebecca Harrison in Johannesburg)

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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