'We Have to Break in Our New Celebrities Slowly'

To Sierra Leone with Elizabeth McGovern


I've always been curious about the relationship between celebrities and the causes they represent: who initiates the connection, how the celeb gets briefed, and so on. If you've wondered about the same thing, the London Telegraph's recent report on actress/singer Elizabeth McGovern's trip to Sierra Leone with the California-based charity World Vision will be illuminating. Or maybe her story is entirely atypical and doesn't illuminate much at all. Either way, it's an entertaining read:

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is a great movie.

[P]erhaps because it is a profoundly Christian organisation—[Sarah] Wilson describes it as "more Christian than Christian Aid"—[World Vision] is big in the United States, but has a relatively small presence in our more sceptical isles, where we are wary of anything that looks like proselytising (a spokesman confirmed that it sometimes uses charity funds to set up Christian education courses for those of other faiths).

I ask McGovern why, as a non-Christian, she chose to support World Vision rather than one of the many secular, apolitical charities, such as Unicef. Her answer is unexpected: she had no idea that it was a faith-based organisation. As it turned out, charity representatives failed to make their Christianity clear to her. This, they say, was an "oversight"; they had assumed that McGovern would take a look at the World Vision website (their logo is a shining cross).

"I was stupid not to realise it," she tells me later. "I think the people at World Vision assumed it would be obvious." McGovern has not withdrawn from World Vision, as "on balance, it is an organisation that does a lot of good for many people." In addition, World Vision has paid her band £28,000 to fund the recording of their latest album and a UK tour, in return for which they have agreed to promote the charity. Without this money, McGovern says, her band would "never survive".

I also enjoyed this impromptu political commentary:

"I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home," reflects McGovern. "You see certain cultures where there's just endemic cruelty to women. I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka? And that clitoris thing is awful."

On a more substantial level, the article includes some thoughtful commentary on the relationship between child sponsorship, broader forms of aid, and PR. When McGovern meets Jestina, the African girl her donations have been sponsoring, the author notes that "the money does not go to Jestina or her family, but is used for various projects in the area. The little girl is being used as the human face of her community, and McGovern is the human face of ours; it is a feedback loop of public relations." He doesn't declare this as a debunker—he goes on to say that those projects do good for the village, and thus presumably for Jestina—but to take a clearer look at what exactly the transaction we're witnessing actually means.

Read the rest of the Telegraph story here.