As Aid Agencies Get Pummelled, Deafening Silence from Hollywood & Bollywood

Angélique Kidjo, an Oxfam ambassador, in West Africa. Photo: Oxfam

Angélique Kidjo, an Oxfam ambassador, in West Africa. Photo: Oxfam

As the multi-billion dollar aid industry deals with its own “Me Too” moment - defending itself against allegation of sexual misconduct amongst staff - there is ironically a deafening silence from the very people who signed up to promote its good work - Hollywood and Bollywood.

What started as sex scandal in Haiti within the UK-based charity, Oxfam, has now spread to engulf the top names in the sector, including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Save the Children, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Doctors Without Borders. Most use charity or goodwill ambassadors as advocates.

Late last month, the crisis spread to the iconic UNICEF,  the first UN agency to be touched by the ongoing upheaval in the aid sector. Justin Forsyth, its deputy executive director, resigned after allegations of inappropriate behaviour at his previous job as chief of Save the Children (UK). 

Making things worse, it’s emerged that Save the Children failed to disclose internal probes into Forsyth to UNICEF, even as they recommended him to the world’s most influential children’s organization. The development strikes at the heart of the charity sex scandal as one of the biggest issues being debated is the lack of vetting of aid industry workers, including senior executives. 

In a proactive and what must have been painful move, the ICRC - highly respected as an agency known to be ‘first in and last out’ - voluntarily disclosed 21 cases of sexual misconduct over the last three years. More charities that receive British taxpayer support stepped forward as they met a Feb 26 deadline to submit reports on how they are protecting children and vulnerable people to the UK’s International Development Secretary. 

As the tsunami of negative publicity pounds the aid industry there are shockingly few celebrity ambassadors standing up with words of support. We’ve only really heard from those who’ve resigned from Oxfam - most notably Goodwill Hunting star Minnie Driver and Archbishop Desmond Tutu .

Global superstar Katy Perry received the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award in 2016 for her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Credit: UNICEF USA

Global superstar Katy Perry received the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award in 2016 for her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Credit: UNICEF USA

Here’s why celebrity ambassadors need to get off the red carpet and start speaking up: with each passing day new allegations are severely tarnishing the aid industry. Governments, corporations and individual donors are beginning to question the ethics of donating to charities that have been implicated - even those that haven’t. UK-based journalists and aid industry veterans tell me privately that some of the anger and publicity is being driven by opponents of development aid. 

The bloodletting, in what was heretofore an untouchable sector, isn’t pretty to watch. Already the beleaguered Oxfam, which has just revealed 25 new cases of staff misconduct, has seen the cancellation of 7,000 regular donations over a 10-day period. Corporations are also reviewing their cooperation. 

It could be that the ambassadors are deliberately laying low, perhaps working quietly behind the scenes with targeted organizations to clean up their act, or just keeping out of sight waiting for it all to pass.

The tragedy is that, as their most powerful and influential advocates, goodwill ambassadors could leverage their PR heft to help manage the tide of negative publicity. The vast majority have been to the field, witnessed firsthand the invaluable work undertaken by the agencies they represent. 

Tom Hiddleston, who’s been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2013, said: “Truthfully, when I see it on the ground, the impact is profound...If you see ‘UNICEF’ people know that’s where the water comes from, the vaccines come from, that’s where the educational equipment comes from.”

Oxfam’s roster of celebrity ambassadors includes Cold Play, Angélique Kidjo and Harry Potter’s Bonny Wright. “From climate change to conflict resolution, from women's issues to an international arms trade treaty, from charity auctions and spoof videos to visiting the world's largest refugee camp, they push forward the fight against poverty and injustice,” says Oxfam International of its ambassadors.

Actress Isla Fisher has starred in hit films including Baz Luhrmann’s  The Great Gatsby . Isla helped launch Save the Children's breastfeeding campaign in 2013.  Credit: Save the Children

Actress Isla Fisher has starred in hit films including Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Isla helped launch Save the Children's breastfeeding campaign in 2013. Credit: Save the Children

Over the decades, goodwill and celebrity ambassadors have spoken eloquently about the lifesaving work aid organizations carry out supporting refugees, preventing malnutrition, getting girls into education and vaccinating children against preventable diseases - through speeches, advocacy videos, media interviews, red carpet appearances - even testimonies to the UN and legislatures.

So there’s no better set of influential voices at the moment to help counter the unprecedented assault on the aid sector.

Recently I advocated that, given the scope of the negative publicity, aid agencies and charities will need to coordinate their response - put aside traditional rivalries and speak with one voice in defence of their mandates. Issuing press releases, haughty statements from the office of the CEO just ain’t going to do the trick this time. The sector - with heavy backing from the goodwill ambassadors - needs to ensure that the Oxfam scandal doesn’t become an excuse for people to attack development aid in general - and in the UK context the commitment to invest 0.7% of gross national income (or about £14 billion-a-year) on assistance to developing nations and international emergencies.

“I worry about all the people who are going to suffer if they abandon this charity,” said British actor Simon Pegg, in his defence of Oxfam, one of the few to speak out.

They must realize that should the financial hemorrhaging and threats to cut development budgets continue it will hit the most vulnerable the most - the millions of vulnerable children, women and men who are dependent on aid.

I’ve met and collaborated with some goodwill ambassadors, including Vanessa Redgrave; they’re no dummies and most on field visits scrutinize throughly the work of the agencies they represent. At a time when the aid industry is at its knees, we’ve heard no words of defence from the likes of David Beckham, Ricky Martin or Jackie Chan. Even Jordan’s Queen Rania, who’s been UNICEF’s “Eminent Advocate for Children,” hasn't said a word on the widening controversy.

To be sure, ambassadors have the prerogative to stop their goodwill work when they loose faith - just as prominent Egyptian actor Hussein Fahmi did in 2006 when he parted ways with the UN over its seeming indifference over the Israeli bombing of Qana in Lebanon. “I cannot carry on as a Goodwill Ambassador to an institution that is incapable of making any difference in a country that is under siege,” Fahmi famously said on his way out the door.

Let’s be clear: celebrities enter into endorsement agreements with aid agencies not only from the goodness of their hearts; it also helps bolster their brand name. Like a marriage, part of that unwritten deal is that they defend their partners in times of crisis and help fix problems. 

They must realize that should the financial hemorrhaging and threats to cut development budgets continue it will hit the most vulnerable the most - the millions of vulnerable children, women and men who are dependent on aid.

Because it would take an Act of Parliament to cut the UK’s foreign aid budget, British celebrity ambassadors in particular need to get before Parliament to defend development aid, especially at a time when aid agencies are dealing with an unprecedented number of simultaneous, complex emergencies. 

If there ever was a time for the stars of Hollywood and Bollywood to raise their voices it is now. Either speak out or go.