Shining Star Spotlights on Places We Might Not See

03/07/2011 05:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The star? George Clooney. The place? Sudan. The most important thing he said in a recent Newsweek interview about his work there? " ... to continue to try to help, but we have to be very careful--and sometimes helping is not throwing money at a problem." Clooney is one of Hollywood's brighter stars that has sought to take the spotlight which follows him and shine it on people in a place that we might not otherwise take the time to see. It gets headline coverage mostly for the devastation that has occurred there. The focus of his recent trip was to be a voice for peaceful resolution of deadly conflict through potential independence for southern Sudan by referendum.

Star "activism" goes back several decades to a time when there were general sentiments pushing for oversimplified concepts such as "peace." Most often the proponents lacked even a basic understanding of global issues or of foreign policy generally. Many of the actions in these decades past were designed to further ideology and generate self-promotion. Whatever the interpretation, there was no credible effort to actually use a spotlight to assist people in need, or to create the sort of debate actually intended to help resolve issues.

Flashing forward to 1984, a group of musicians came together to form a group called "Band-Aid." The group performed a song asking "Do They Know its Christmas" in Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, ravaged by famine. The following year, there was the massive Live Aid concert organized by Bob Geldof and attended by millions of people in different cities on different continents to benefit poverty in Africa.

Poverty is comprehensible, even in theory, for those who have not experienced its reality. It is difficult not to have money in places where there are shelters, schools, hospitals and safety nets. But to have no money, no shelter, no schools, no hospitals and certainly no safety nets -- this goes beyond even poverty.

Most Live Aid concert-goers had some general idea that their ticket proceeds were going towards this sort of poverty even if they did not know the specifics or demographics of Africa. For instance, asking about Christmas in Ethiopia may make sense because the majority of people are Christian. There are, however, many African countries in which most of the population is not Christian. This may be an inconsequential fact when wishing the general goodwill of Christmas onto people. However, the demographic specifics become more important when moving from understanding general poverty to comprehending the civil strife and warring factions, which, on top of poverty, have decimated populations.

The generation of actors and pop stars coming of their activist age out of Band Aid, Live Aid and beyond has, fortunately, made an effort to understand the countries they are trying to help. U2 lead rocker Bono, a participant in both Band Aid and Live Aid, has become known as the godfather of the informed activist effort. He indicates that he decided to go to Africa to actually see the people and places that were to be beneficiaries of the concert proceeds. In the years since, he has made point of trying to educate himself on the issues, and makes public the fact that he does so. He often cites Jeffery Sachs, Columbia University based international economist, as a source of his information.

Another high profile Hollywood star using her spotlight effectively has been Angelina Jolie. Following the model of trying to learn the issues in order to have credibility rather than solely star power, she has made an effort to work with international organizations and policy makers. She has also spent time on the ground in many countries which need assistance, serving both the purpose of firsthand knowledge of the problems and attracting Western news cameras into destinations that they might not go if she were not there. Ms. Jolie been taken seriously enough and been found credible enough to be appointed as a goodwill ambassador by the United Nations. This provides her with a substantive platform and ability to stay well informed about the issues.

Receiving less coverage, but decent marks for an attempt at an informed effort has been Ben Affleck working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He explained that he spent time visiting the region and views it as an "ongoing learning experience to educate myself before making any attempt to advocate or speak out." The program, the Eastern Congo Initiative, cites among its goals working in local communities and supporting economic development through local leadership. Assisting in sustainable programs and creating communities that can survive without being dependent on the Western world should be the goal of all of these initiatives. Mr. Affleck is scheduled to appear this week at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing, "The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Securing Peace in the Midst of Tragedy."

Activist star power has been criticized as potentially self-serving and promoting the star's own identity further. The reality is that getting more exposure is true just by virtue of the news cameras that follow them. There are, however, far easier ways to increase one's star power than risk contracting malaria in foreign lands to get to know the people they are trying to help. This new brand of Hollywood activist has emerged and seems to want to actually effect real change through an educated effort. Another reality is that they have the status and fiscal clout to embark on such endeavors. There are every day Americans who, when watching news coverage of the plight in the world may really want to help, but most of us would have a much harder time doing so.

In the current climate of tough economic times domestically, and lagging public support for international affairs spending, the spotlight and resources that star power provides can be even more significant. Star evolution into educated activism has been a beneficial development for the poorest parts of the world. And hopefully this informed evolution will continue.

One of the key things to remember is what Mr. Clooney said -- money is not always the answer. Many activists appear before policy makers urging increased funding for foreign aid causes. Despite potential reductions, there are still billions of dollars in aid coming from Western governments and private sources. A major missing element, however, is a plan to account for where this money is being spent. Initiatives such as Mr. Affleck's ECI which has a plan for development of the community and buy in from local leaders are a good start.

One of the biggest challenges for these star activists to think about beyond their work on the ground is how to effect permanent sustainable changes. What if, in generations to come, there are no tech titans or rock stars that want to try and help the poorest children in the world? What will they do then? And how do we try to make their world one in which survival will not be dependent on stars shining their spotlights?