The problems with celebrity activism? Let’s start with unintended consequences.

Amongst the long list of challenges getting in the way of actually helping the people you want to help, two repeatedly jump out at me.

The first challenge is to avoid unintended consequences. Because humans are so complicated and react to changes around them, you will frequently find that taking one action has some unexpected consequence that undercuts the help you’re trying to provide.

Another challenge is finding out what the people you are helping might actually know about the issue. The people living with the struggle every single day might have some insight that could have helped you while you were in your office figuring out how to fix their problem.

Check out the following article on 7/12 by Georgia Cole, Ben Radley, & Jean-Benoit Falisse writing at Quartz – What’s missing from celebrity activism in Africa? The people.

My summary:  the article explores the long list of problems with celebrities picking a cause, choosing the one single perfect solution that will fix everything, and advocating for their personal preference of policy action.
This is yet one more illustration of the expected unintended consequences of externally imposed solutions discussed in The Tyranny Of Experts.

One of the issues discussed in the article is whether the celebrity putting himself or herself at the center of “the cause” does more to fix the problem-du-jour or improve the celebrity’s brand.

Main point in the article is the celebrity led solution normally leaves out any input from the people living with the issue and who will be affected by the externally developed fix.

There can also be severe unintended consequences.

Article provides section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank legislation dealing with conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as an example. I pay no attention to celebrity media outlets, so it is news to me that the article says lots of celebrities have adopted conflict minerals as their cause.

The requirement for a paper trail proving certain minerals did not come from DRC or neighboring countries is actually causing serious problems. The article says:

With de facto international boycotts on minerals from the DRC, and a government ban on artisanal mining, tens of thousands of miners and businesses ended up unable to make a living. This pushed many individuals either towards the illicit mining industry or a rebel group, thus paradoxically exacerbating the very violence it set out to reduce.

The fully expected unintended consequence:

  • that wonderful feel-good legislation increases unemployment and increases violence.

I have also read previously (don’t have a link handy and, um, I don’t feel like looking for one) that the black market has a booming trade in fabricated documentation of conflict mineral sources. Thus, the legislation has unintended consequences from another direction to encourage mining conflict minerals.

The author’s suggestions for ethical celebrity activism:

First, it should respond to and collaborate with local people, rather than impose exogenously generated agendas.

Second, activism should be fact-driven, reflexive and responsive, and cognisant of that as contexts change, so too must it.

Third, it should speak to power but also firmly against it, and should not presume that all change is possible from within.

Authors advocate an engagement with the people about whom advocates claim to be concerned.

Sounds like an incredibly wonderful idea to me. I think William Easterly would agree (he wrote the book I linked above).

I see two obstacles. First, celebrities would harvest a fraction of their current publicity and thus lose much of their brand building opportunities. Second, extended consultations in dreary places with everyday people would leave pop media with less photo ops and far less filler for magazines.

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