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On the trail of the celebrity activist

By CNN's Richard Quest


(CNN) -- This month Richard's quest takes him on a journey to uncover the celebrity activist.

Beyonce. Bono. Angelina Jolie. For the past few months we have been besieged by the most famous names in the world telling us to get involved and "make poverty history " or "help the refugees".

It reached fever pitch during the Live 8 Concerts and G8 summit -- so much so that the team behind CNN's 'Quest' programme decided to try to find out whether this involvement actually did any good.

Crucially, we also wanted to find out whether these celebrities actually knew anything about what they were supporting, or if it was just a plaintiff plea that "something must be done!"

When it comes to getting involved, celebrities come in different shapes and sizes. At the top of the pyramid are the Geldofs and Bonos -- these days more players of aid politics than of musical instruments.

Bono admitted: "It is going to take the rest of my life to achieve some of these goals. I am not going anywhere. This is my life now."

For most celebrities there is a great deal underneath the seemingly obvious platitude that "something must be done."
Richard's Quest took him to one of the world's poorest regions

Take Beyonce and Destiny's Child who are savvy enough to know their celebrity status gives them a platform and are prepared to use it.

Beyonce told me: "I know the young generation look up to us, so one of the reasons we are here is to take advantage of our celebrity. We've been to Africa and we've seen the children and we've been to the townships and we've seen them with our own eyes."

The clear message -- I am not just a pretty face. I know what I am on about here.

The biggest names are recruited by all major charities to put forward their cause. Some, like the singer Natalie Imbruglia, have chosen to champion the least picturesque causes. In her case, fistula in women in Africa.

As she admits, faeces, incontinence and nasty smells are not popular causes. Others like Angelina Jolie are regularly pictured hugging children in refugee children in camps around the world, or in her case even adopting an orphan with AIDS in Ethiopia.

But don't be fooled. Angelina knows what she is doing.

Whether it is the gossip about her and Brad, or making films to fund her charity work, she admits: "I am clear enough to know that if you do a film every once in a while, you can maintain a certain level of celebrity to be able to get on shows and talk about things. So there is a balance."

Suddenly it all seems rather calculated for full effect.

Organisations like the ONE campaign take a great deal of time and trouble to make sure the celebrity is the right fit. Get it wrong and terrible PR damage can flow.

Destiny's Child: Making use of their celebrity status

One who spent time making sure he got it right was actor George Clooney who has just signed up to the ONE campaign in the US. It took weeks of discussions. Neither side wanted to make a mistake.

As Clooney puts it: "It takes me a while to get in, you also want to make sure the things you get in to are the right ones."

Clooney is now preparing to make his first trip "into the field" to see for himself. Pretty much as I did last month.

UNICEF had arranged for me to travel to Ethiopia for a week as a Goodwill representative.

In the show, you see me exchange my journalist's hat for my UNICEF T-shirt. I had to receive special permission from CNN to shift sides, so to speak.

Nothing I saw would shock the average OXFAM or Save The Children field worker. But it gave me and my production team nightmares.

There were acutely malnourished children and when my time came to feed them enriched milk formula, UNICEF's Ethiopia Director Bjorn Ljungqvist wasn't joking when he said I was literally feeding them life.

There was one empty cot where another child had died the previous night. 1,200 such children die in Ethiopia every day.

Bono's campaigning against global poverty has made him a pioneer in celebrity activism

Then onto the slums of Awassa where we met the AIDS orphans.

Two sisters living in a concrete shack less than 3 metres square, the oldest only 13, looking after her 9-year-old-sister. There were hundreds of such cases.

By the time we had finished filming, we were all grateful there wasn't a cash machine in Awassa as we would have emptied our bank accounts to help them out. Instead we all went back to our hotel where, unashamedly, we admitted we privately burst into tears.

UNICEF's Alfred Ironside is quite blunt about why they use the famous faces: "Celebrities are absolutely critical to everything UNICEF does. They can open doors and people listen to what they are able to say".

It is a sad commentary on today's society, but he is right. If I hadn't been making this programme, would the Prime Minister of Ethiopia have given me time?

The PM may not be happy with our final portrayal of his country, but it also gives him the chance to say "I'm a bit tired of those who think that that is the only picture in Ethiopia."

"There is a threat of famine," he says, "but people are not hapless, helpless beggars, they are fighting poverty and they are making in-roads and those need to be recognised as well."

It is too easy to criticise the celebrities for getting involved as air-headed singers making trite comments.
Richard takes on the role of UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Ethiopia

But as they would say, at least they are doing something. And let's not forget, it is we as consumers who give them that licence, following their every bit of gossip and tittle-tattle.

If they are to be criticised for caring in the first place, we too must share part of the blame for caring about what they do.

My producer described our show as the most important programme he has made in 10 years at CNN. I think he is probably right.

Does celebrity activism work? Well, we've made a programme featuring the issues behind it. I've spoken to government ministers about UNICEF's work. You've just read an article about it.

So from the charities' point of view, I guess it does.

Richard Quest presents CNN's 'Quest'. The hour long special on 'celebrity activism' airs on CNN Saturday 13 and Sunday 14 August. For show times click here.

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