Thursday, March 31, 2011


In Malawi, about $3.8m (£2.4m) has disappeared and a school has been left unbuilt. Alone, that story would never make international headlines. The project belonged to Madonna's charity Raising Malawi. The message from the failed project appears simple: good intentions are not enough, and money in the wrong hands can be worse than no money at all. But the unbuilt school also points to much deeper debates about how development happens: can it come from outside and above? Or must it come from inside and below? A heated land dispute pits villagers against the wealthy western donor and the Malawian government, which takes her side: "Don't you know better? You need a school. You should be grateful." Not long after, allegations follow of private jets being flown into the country, laden with luxuries (exercise machines and expensive wines). But the project only truly begins to falter after auditors uncover "outlandish expenses" – salaries, private cars and golf memberships – and the charity's executive director bows out. Amid the brewing controversy, the project is pulled by the wealthy donor, who hopes to cut her loses.

In the aftermath, staff members are suddenly left without jobs, and file suit for lost wages, unfair dismissal and non-payment of benefits. As the "mismanagement of funds" is said to have happened overseas, those among the general public who answered the charity's call for donations can do little to hold it to account. Though Madonna had chosen education as her cause, she has now been forced to share her spotlight with the much more complex development challenges of corruption, accountability and disenfranchisement.

The development economist William Easterly said that part of the new millennium's explosion of interest in "saving Africa" could be explained by the mass advocacy celebrity campaigns spearheaded by the Bonos and the Geldofs of the world. But aside from the Malawi project's star-studded cast – Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow were also among Madonna's backers. Today, celebrities are much more than pretty faces for charity appeals. They're also out and about, lobbying politicians and setting up their own foundations. But, according to William Easterly, celebrities have been too quick to rub shoulders and hobnob with the powerful. And they overstep the line, he says, by claiming expertise on the basis of their stardom. In the process, say critics, attention is diverted away from the tougher, more nuanced issues in development.

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