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Corrin Varady Headshot

Madonna, This Ain't Showbiz

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Again, the world sighs with unsurprised frustration as it hears of total mismanagement of funds by a charitable foundation operating in Africa. A story all too familiar and equally repetitive: an African charity, a Hollywood celebrity and total and utter misconduct.

Madonna's Raising Malawi foundation has been accused of mismanaging a $3.8 million charitable investment, only part of a $15 million sum that was to build an elite Academy for Girls in Malawi. So far, there has been one brick laid, copious executive salaries paid, cars bought for non-existent staff and the most "necessary" of all -- a golf club membership.

In the wake of such gross negligence, we hear of the resignation of Executive Director Philippe van den Bossche, the former partner of Madonna's personal trainer. And now the staff of Raising Malawi are suing Madonna for unfair dismissal -- it seems that this story cannot get any more sadly comical. All of this out of the good intentions of the charity adoption queen and her Kabbalistic colleagues.

It is probably true that Madonna was unaware of the mismanagement of the charitable funds and that fault lay with a privy few executives incapable of operating such a project. But responsibility has to be taken if you are the CEO of an organization revealed to have committed such a serious case of malpractice. Charities worldwide are expected to operate as corporations responsible to their shareholders. That means auditing, transparency and, therefore, accountability. If Raising Malawi were a publicly-listed corporation and this level of mismanagement occurred, you would hear the hallowing cries from your shareholders demanding your head on the chopping block.

To give you an idea of what $3.8 million could do for our foundation and the children we sponsor: we could have built two schools and separately sponsored over 1000 youth sustainably for five years, including administration and salary costs and leaving a considerable amount in the bank account as spare change. So whilst this amount is not even one quarter of the intended budget for the project, it is a substantial amount by any community's standards, not limited to that of just Africa. I will shy away from even raising the debate about whether the most effective use of $15 million in Africa is building just one private school servicing 800 students a year -- a contentious argument in itself.

Now, that is not to say that I am against the idea of celebrity involvement in charities. Quite the opposite, in fact -- the commercialization and communication of a message is key to the long-term sustainability of the projects and their funding avenues. However, these sorts of errors are a big wake up call to all the want-to-be 'do-gooders' who don't actively participate in the projects -- this isn't Showbiz! The fact of the matter is, good intentions just don't cut it anymore. Particularly when those good intentions have such negative and ugly consequences. It is not fair -- to the Malawian community to have their hopes raised and then dashed, to the donors who have given their money in pursuit of the cause or to other organizations that are actually making a difference in these communities to be painted with the same brush. It doesn't matter whether it was Madonna's personal money or not, the fact stands that making promises that are not kept to people in far more financially vulnerable situations is simply not right.

We founded the World Youth Education Trust because of flagrant corruption I came across when I was working and volunteering in Africa in my early 20s. My idealism of "saving the world" was quickly replaced by a realistic understanding that the process of fund raising was not even the tip of the humanitarian iceberg. And that these sorts of project do not live on funding alone but hours of well thought out plans and development, not to mention implementation.

The most punitive fall outs for charities, trusts and foundations worldwide from this sort of a debacle is the reputation of hardworking, valuable and experienced foundations operating in these areas. As smaller foundations such as my own struggle to survive month by month on the generosity of our individual donors and operate on budgets considered to be loose change to organizations such as Raising Malawi, the damage of such bad publicity can be irreparable. While the world's cynicism to the ubiquitous "African Charity" increases, pools of funds become smaller and our focuses, which should be on the ground in Africa, are distracted, instead directed to competing for the limited financial resources in communities which are asking the question "where does my money go?" Unfairly, they find their questions simply answered by situations such as this in Malawi.

And so we continue, without a golf course membership to ease our struggles, to beg and borrow to raise the much-needed money to deliver our programs, knowing that this week it will be that much more difficult to convince someone that their hard earned money will be put to good use in Africa.