Charity and the Hollywood Helicopter Heroes

Definition: Hollywood Helicopter Hero – a famous personality who uses charitable and / or popular social / environmental / economic issues to burnish their professional credentials and boost their celebrity status.

Examples include:

i) Bono: lead singer of Irish rock band U2, now bouncing about the world talking about how we must all get together and fight poverty
ii) George Clooney: actor famous for portraying urbane, debonair heroes, now jetting into Darfur where he can be urbane and debonair while pointing out the trauma behind him
iii) Diana Spencer: ex Princess of Wales (and now deceased) who used to hug AIDS and landmine victims, which helped her become the “people’s princess” instead of the shallow, venal royals we all read about in the tabloids
iv) Angelina Jolie and Madonna: one a so-so actress, the other a past-it singer, who helicopter into impoverished nations and find cute-looking poor kids to adopt
v) Al Gore: ex-presidential hopeful, and Nobel Prize-winning documentary producer, who gets to jet about the world, talking about how everyone must downsize to reduce global heating, while upsizing his personal body-mass and living it up in a massive estate (while buying carbon offsets to offset his offset)

However, my personal favourite is still:

vi) Oprah Winfrey: talk-show host about whom I have written considerably (and more below).

Cardboard Heroes

It must be nice to be a Hollywood Helicopter Hero. You get to associate yourself with noble causes (creating the image of compassion), speak humbly about the subject (giving gravitas) and tell everyone that something must be done (striking urgency and showing your deep personal commitment) but without having to do anything about it.

It’s a no-brainer as far as personal publicity is concerned.

And South Africa’s always been a great location for poseur benefactors. We have astonishing poverty which makes Calcutta look upmarket, yet we also have really fantastic hotels and restaurants a short drive away (the spoils of the most unequal economy in the world). Plus, Nelson Mandela is still alive and you can usually prevail on the old man to give you a hug on camera if you toss enough money at one or other noble cause.

Enter the Winfrey.

Back in December 2006 I wrote about Jackie Maarohanye, the “Angel of Soweto”. Mama Jackie had become famous for running a self-help program for disadvantaged kids in Soweto, the large black township outside Johannesburg. She had received millions of US dollars in dosh from willing benefactors; not least $ 1.14 million from Oprah Winfrey.

Then it turned out the whole thing was a sham. Maarohanye had collected various children and paid them to tell sob stories to donors. It worked. When confronted by journalists she kidnapped one and held him hostage.

Despite all this Maarohanye is still an Ashoka Fellow and received a personal invite by Winfrey to the opening of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in January 2007.

Winfrey’s Leadership Academy was an expensive boondoggle. The school cost $ 46 million to build and $ 800,000 per month to run. The dollar may buy less than it used to, but that’s still a lot of cash to throw at a mere 150 students. Yip. 150 students.

Fortunately, the $ 60 000 per year each student costs was covered entirely by Winfrey.

Winfrey got to swan about and declare how wonderful she was. 150 girls got an education.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Yet, like Britney Spears before her, Winfrey is discovering that kids hang around a lot longer than it takes to snap that front-page image. Children are an ongoing responsibility.

Over the past few weeks the school has been subject to an inordinate amount of bad press. Staff are alleged to have been abusing the girls, who are kept under near prison conditions.

You’d think that Winfrey would have learned about responsibility after her experiences with Maarohanye. However, she hasn’t.

“I trusted her. When I appointed her, I thought she was passionate about the children of Africa. But I’ve been disappointed,” said a tearful Winfrey of the principal of the school, Dr Mzimane. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

What to make of all this?

Firstly, that Hollywood stars have fallen for their own bullshit. All those kids swanning about, humming along to “We are the world,” genuinely believe that supporting some over-inflated celebrity is a way to end suffering and bring about a “better” world (whatever that means). But so do the celebrities.

They genuinely think that all that is required is that we all “care” about poverty, neglect and so on.

Poverty is not simply the absence of money or opportunity. Anyone – especially Hollywood stars – who places themselves in front of the most impoverished and desperate are going to find out the hard way that money, in and of itself, solves nothing.

9 replies »

  1. A few points.

    Whilst I understand where you are coming from, often, I really cannot fall for the picture you have created with the listed individuals.

    Philanthropy is an established part of all society and historically NOTHING would have happened to kick-start voluntary societal change (as opposed to violent revolt supported by academic theories that proved futile and horrific in the end the world over) without the acts of the famous/established personalities of the day – who happened to be rich and/or had clout. The education of the poor started with the impetus of charity.

    It is well known in England that the ONE individual who changed forever how the public viewed the AIDS victim was the PoW. She walked in with gloves off, sat down and chatted with them. The first visit to that first hospice was a turning point. The precedent she set was truly remarkable.

    Oprah’s venture into SA I knew a little about and she is clearly a monetary force but there are few who doubt her generosity and genuine desire to help. Hopefully, the powers that be will operate more checks and balances when it comes to supporting 150 girls.

    …and one girl educated at great expense would be fine by me. It is individuals that make a difference in society not packs. One girl going on to lead and inform in SA having had a benefactor would be something to embrace considering the position of many females in your country.

    It is unfortunate that the school is going through this…but it is not unique. Abuse happens. Just ask kids the world over.

    All countries deal, trade, interconnect and give to one another.

    if it had not been for the thrust of charitable giving – and all the major religions talk about charitable giving

  2. NOTE:

    Does Scholars and Rogues have a bug/or in the process of being de-bugged.

    …it does not seem to run smoothly as before.

  3. What are you experiencing? There’s a known bug (it’s called “Internet Explorer”) that we’re working on and we do have a couple widgets that on occasion slow the load time a tad. Are you seeing something else?

  4. The Oprah. A woman with a self-titled magazine featuring herself on the cover every month. Enough said.

    My real question: I understand that money is not enough. As someone with extensive knowledge and understanding, given $46 million to improve living conditions in, say, Soweto, how would you spend it? What else would you ask for? What needs to be in the mix to effect real change? Where would you begin? Are there identifiable, fundamental problems which could actually be solved? How would you address intangible elements like hopelessness, or traditions that no longer work, or ingrained attitudes?

  5. Slowness in loading and an error message saying not found – even when the site is staring at you in the face. I have to log out and then back in again.

  6. Ann, indeed. The Magazine.

    Money isn’t the problem. People dealing with poverty or neglect always identify it as the “problem”. It becomes important when the school you build has (and check this out, it’s almost surreal) marble floors, a spa, hair-care salons and so on.

    The requirement is for appropriate economic solutions. CK Prahalad (The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid) has done much to promote this, companies like my own continue it in South Africa.

    It works like this: get the poor to manufacture and sell things to each other FIRST, then deal with the rest of the world. It is this approach which has so transformed China. The reason it works is simple, the products so produced will be cheap enough for the poor to afford. This builds economic activity and allows for … that awful phrase … sustainable development (as compared to expensive charity of the Oprah variety).