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Goodwill Ambassador: The New Celebrity Fallback Career

Stars like Ben Affleck and Nicole Kidman are busy distracting public attention from everything the U.N. doesn't do.

Bridget Johnson


December 15, 2008 - 12:21 am
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Following a story about Nicole Kidman, goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, a commenter on a British news site asked a really pertinent question: “Why can’t they name ordinary people goodwill ambassadors?” It’s not that ordinary people don’t have the sympathy for global concerns; it’s just that the United Nations is partial to people who have cameras following them around all day, thinking that if they get celebs who can snap their fingers and make their publicist fetch, they’ll command the whole world’s attention for the cause du jour.

And doesn’t reaping a celebu-wow or two do a fine job of distracting public attention from all the things the United Nations doesn’t do (like, fire a gun when genocide comes calling)?

I wouldn’t automatically question the motivations of most goodwill ambassadors, who either have big hearts and want to do good (even if they don’t know a lick about policy) or got a stern lecturing from their managers at some point about the publicity value of being the U.N.’s pretty face. But as Affleck offered comments aplenty to the media during his Congo sojourn, one particularly caught my attention.

“I thought a lot of people are advocating on Darfur. I’d just be a very small log on a big fire. I started getting interested in Congo and I thought, this is a place where I can have a really big impact,” Affleck said.

What, the Darfur cause got too crowded to make it on camera? Maybe it’s because he had too far to go to make it to Darfur activist George Clooney’s U.N. crown: the title of “messenger of peace,” which is only bestowed for an initial period of three years, perhaps to make sure that celebs don’t wage bloody conflict within that time period.

But there’s little chance of Clooney letting the U.N. down. At his acceptance ceremony in January, Clooney spoke about a two-week trip to Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo that he’d just taken with the U.N.’s Assistant Secretary-General of Peacekeeping Operations Jane Holl Lute. “When I stood in the hospital next to women who had been raped and set on fire two days earlier, they looked up to me and said, ‘Please send the U.N.’ – not the U.S., not China, not Russia – just the U.N. You are their only hope,” Clooney said.

Though that quickly conjures up memories of the South Park episode “Smug Alert,” it seems Clooney may have missed the second part of that plea: Please send the U.N … and make them actually do something.

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Bridget Johnson is a veteran journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She is an NPR contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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