Pro Bono? The Curious Relationship between Celebrity Influence and Global Health Policy

Today’s musicians, athletes, and actors no longer have simple titles. Many of these individuals now frequently have the words “activist,” “advocate,” and “humanitarian” attached to their names. For example, singer Alicia Keys often travels to Africa to visit HIV/AIDS families through her work as Global Ambassador for Keep a Child Alive. When not on the football field, David Beckham lends his name to UNICEF and Malaria No More. American Angelina Jolie is an Academy Award-winning actress as well as a UN Goodwill Ambassador.

 And then there’s Bono.

 The Irish frontman of the wildly popular band, U2, has become a ubiquitous symbol for alleviating poverty and raising awareness for global health issues. When the architect of the Millennium Development Goals, economist Jeffrey Sachs, released his book The End of Poverty, the Forward was penned by Bono. The musician often appears before the US Congress to advocate for continued funding for malaria and HIV efforts in Africa.  Bono helped to create the (RED) campaign which supports the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria through the sales of brand-name products. He is also a driving force behind ONE, the network which works to mobilize Americans to encourage US foreign assistance initiatives. And let’s not forget his day job: Bono and his band regularly perform to sold-out stadiums of thousands across the world. Before the end of each show, the singer often reminds his audience that they have the power to reduce malaria rates and eradicate world poverty.

 So can an Irish rockstar really impact global health?

 Well, maybe. Bono’s efforts have certainly not gone unnoticed. The ONE campaign boasts over 2.4 million supporters, while www.joinred.com claims that over four million lives have been improved by (RED) support for HIV/AIDS initiatives. Along with Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono graced the cover of TIME magazine as a “Person of the Year” in 2005 for his dedication to fighting infectious diseases in poor nations. He has also received multiple nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Bono’s efforts are also watched closely by his critics, many of whom believe that his actions are used to promote his band and also his ego. Personally, I am a bit skeptical of the idea that dollars from the sales of Apple iPods and GAP t-shirts have a real impact on HIV/AIDS communities in Africa, but I’d like to believe that some (maybe even just a handful) of the people purchasing (RED) items have some degree of greater awareness about the diseases affecting many of the world’s poor after buying their product. Perhaps someone attends a U2 concert and upon returning home decides to look up the impact of bed nets on preventing malaria. Can Bono’s actions eventually contribute to the eradication of malaria?  To the end of world hunger?  To the drastic reduction of HIV/AIDS in Africa?  And how would we really know? I don’t think we can accurately measure the impact of celebrity influence on global health. Nor do I think we should.

While I certainly don’t think of Bono as a leading expert in global health, I do appreciate his efforts in raising awareness for such issues. But I don’t forget the fact that Bono does not have a formal education in medicine or policy. However, he does have the power to reach millions. I think we should look to him not as a political figure or an expert, but as someone who has the platform to call attention to health inequalities. I have attended many U2 concerts, but I don’t buy each ticket in the hopes to learn something new about TB rates in Africa. I just like good music.

I admire Bono and a few others for using their fame and time to galvanize others around the injustices of today’s world. I don’t think we should waste our efforts in exploring the motives behind their support for such causes. The danger lies not in listening to their pleas, but in accepting them as experts in the field. More importantly, we must not view celebrities as “decision makers” in policy areas for poverty and disease. Instead, we can listen to their personal causes, be inspired (or not), and find our own ways to learn more and contribute. But at the end of the day, we must realize that governments, communities, and institutions are some of the real actors for change.

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