Goodwill Ambassador: The New Celebrity Fallback Career

Shortly before Thanksgiving, the tens of thousands of Congolese languishing in fetid refugee camps sure could have used an extra morsel or two, perhaps some medicine to stave off the illnesses that spread through such encampments, and perhaps, above all, some U.N. peacekeepers willing to use their guns to protect them from government vs. rebel warfare. Instead, they got Ben Affleck.


In true Hollywood fashion, Affleck donned the complete Visit Third-World Refugee Camp ensemble a la Eddie Bauer — down to the floppy fishing/adventurer hat — and his most somber expression to stroll through a displacement camp near Kibati. “I’m not an expert in international affairs or diplomacy, but it doesn’t take that to see the tremendous suffering here,” he told the Associated Press. “It’s not something that we as human beings can, in good conscience, ignore.”

Sounds innocuous, even noble, right? You should have seen the looks on the faces of the Congolese as Affleck surveyed the camp, video camera in hand and five o’clock shadow in full effect. Truth be told, they weren’t wowed by the celebrity presence. They seemed genuinely disinterested by the Good Will Hunting Oscar winner turned goodwill ambassador, intently scanning the landscape as the AP photographer snapped away.

In fact, perhaps TMZ should start hanging out in refugee camps to snag the latest hot shots of Tinsel Town residents. As the hot celebrity fallback career used to be designing handbags, it’s now offering impassioned pleas and striking a pose with Ban Ki-moon as the latest U.N. goodwill ambassador.

The goodwill ambassadors range from Angelina Jolie to Giorgio Armani, who represent the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the myriad UNICEF ambassadors: Mia Farrow, Whoppi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Belafonte … well, you get the picture. Spice Girl Geri Halwell is a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Population Fund, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra serves as one, big, giant goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization. (Try fitting them in a cholera clinic in Zimbabwe for a photo op.) Maria Sharapova is a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Development Program, along with French soccer star Zinedine Zidane (think massive head butt at the last World Cup, which didn’t show much good will).�

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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