What do Angelina Jolie, Jessica Simpson and Lindsey Lohan have in common, besides being famous women? They all act as goodwill/humanitarian ambassadors on behalf of the UN, non-profit and news organisations.
In the last decade, celebrities have been acquiring high profile positions in such organisations without any education or experience. This phenomenon speaks volumes about the human condition. It seems that the public will only impart money to non-profits if a famous person offers a sales pitch and attaches a name to a cause. People like to give charity to an organization that is respected, and apparently celebrity support, amounts to respectability.
Angelina Jolie was named as a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador in 2001. In 2003, Jessica Simpson became a Smile Ambassador for Operation Smile. Lindsey Lohan travelled to India in March 2010 to film a documentary on child labour and trafficking of women that was broadcast on BBC3.
The humanitarian/human rights sector is one of the most competitive job markets in the world given its non-profit nature and the high demand for such interesting and fulfilling work. It’s a world that requires volunteer work, graduate and masters degrees just to get a job interview. So I beg the question, what credentials do stars like Jessica Simpson, Lindsey Lohan and Angelina Jolie have to justify their positions?
I have been working globally as a human rights/refugee lawyer for the last 10 years and clearly cannot do what they do. Obviously, I don’t have a public profile that enables me to just show up and say something meaningful about a deplorable situation, in the hope of garnering physical and financial support for the requisite cause.
The real problem relating to access to such work, is the highly bureaucratic nature of deeply established organisations like the UN. Erika Iverson, who works in US Resettlement in New York, said, “I worked with people who didn't know their heads from their asses in resettlement but kept moving up the ladder because they did know how to work the UN promotion system, which is basically 'don't fuck up'.”
This bureaucracy is essentially what keeps indifferent and under-qualified people moving up the ladder. Both Ms Iverson and I have the education, experience and desire to work our way up in our profession, but its very difficult to garner job security in our field. We engage in such work because we want to use our skills to contribute something positive to the world.
Yet, it seems that celebrities don’t need any sort of qualifications or particular skills, they just need to care and be high profile enough. Angelina Jolie, in particular, is captured gallivanting all over the world visiting refugee and IDP camps and engaging in advocacy in Washington D.C. Undoubtedly, her commitment to displaced persons is real and striking. As Ms Iverson says, “she was hired to be a poster child for caring and it turns out, she actually cares.
As a Goodwill Ambassador, Ms Jolie has generated media coverage about the plight of refugees and the conditions under which they live. She has travelled widely to remote refugee camps and UNHCR reception centres in countries including Tanzania, Namibia, Cambodia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Ecuador.
Ms Iverson, is impressed that Angelina has made something of her position, “which actually doesn't require her to do more than say a word or two at appropriate occasions.”
There is no doubt that celebrities have become a perfect pawn in the game of exposure, in an effort for non-profits to acquire much needed funds. Ms Iverson points out that her “biggest beef with Jolie is that she's Ambassador for UNHCR instead of the U.S. Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program (USRP), or the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) or the International Rescue Commission (IRC). UNHCR is a mess . . . but IOM, USRP and IRC are doing what they can to keep this train running in the right direction.”
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