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UN’s goodwill hunting fails in Mugabe case

Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

The controversial announcement to make Robert Mugabe a UN Goodwill Ambassador was a PR disaster, writes Geneva correspondent, Imogen Foulkes. She asks whether UN agencies really need them in the first place. 

Last week, the World Health Organisation unleashed a huge controversy when it emerged that its new director general was planning to appoint Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador. 

The decision was quickly rescinded, but not before a weekend of negative headlines asking why the world’s senior public health body should honour a man widely viewed to have presided over not just an autocratic, abusive regime, but also the collapse of the health system in his own country. It was the kind of publicity UN communications officers have nightmares about. 

“The WHO went completely AWOL on this,” sighed one UN official, speaking off the record. 

“The WHO decision reflects badly on all of us,” added another. 

Goodwill ambassadors are of course supposed to generate positive headlines, that is their primary reason for existence. Robert Mugabe, before even carrying out a single mission for the WHO, did precisely the opposite. 

Celebrity do-gooders? 

But what are goodwill ambassadors exactly? Most UN agencies have them, and there is reportedly competition between agencies to attract the biggest names. More often than not they are film or sports stars, making the choice of Robert Mugabe all the more odd, especially as he is still in office as president of a UN member state. 

UNICEF is perhaps the most well-known agency when it comes to ambassadors. Way back in the 1950’s it engaged Hollywood idol Danny Kaye to be an ‘ambassador at large’. The goal: to use his fame to draw attention to important issues. 

The policy seemed to work, and UNICEF appointed many more ambassadors. Film star Audrey Hepburn could make global headlines visiting vulnerable children in disaster zones. And her glamorous presence ensured that no ticket for a fundraising ball went unsold. 

English footballer David Beckham is a UNICEF ambassador these days, Roger Federer took on the role for several years, and all sorts of other stars, from Shakira, to Orlando Bloom, to Mia Farrow are goodwill ambassadors for UNICEF too. 

Roger Federer and Shakira
Roger Federer poses with fellow Goodwill Unicef Ambassador Shakira in New York after Federer was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2006. Keystone

Fame is not enough 

Over at the UN Refugee Agency, Angelina Jolie is widely regarded as a dedicated and tireless campaigner for the rights of those who have had to flee their homes. 

Goodwill ambassadors, says UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards, are not just appointed because they are famous. 

“It’s a careful process of selection,” he explains. “It takes months, sometimes two to three years.” 

Candidates for goodwill ambassador must fulfill at least one year of active support for the UNHCR before they can be considered. They are expected to go on initial field trips, during which their suitability is assessed. “Some people are just not suitable,” admits Edwards. 

Short term gain? 

But even if celebrities pass their initial assessment, some question how effective they can actually be as ambassadors. 

Mukesh Kapila, Professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Policy at the University of Manchester, has decades of experience with UN agencies, and the crises they try to alleviate. He is not convinced that celebrity ambassadors provide lasting benefits. 

“What happens with these celebrities,” he says, “is that they become the message, and paradoxically they take the attention away from the real message.” 

“I have a fairly jaundiced view of them.” 

Kapila does not dispute that the presence of Angelina Jolie in a refugee camp in Jordan will attract attention. But to what exactly? Angelina Jolie looking empathetic holding a baby? Or the millions of Syrian refugees who are still in camps, months or even years after the celebrity visit? 

Kapila cites the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, as an example of how celebrity attention might actually do more harm than good. George Clooney, he believes, did a lot to raise awareness of the suffering in Darfur, but then “he became silent, he allowed people to think it was resolved.” 

The reason for Clooney’s silence, Kapila thinks, is not because the star did not care anymore, but that he had ‘moved on’ to work on Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency. 

George and Amal Clooney at an event in New York
George and Amal Clooney attend a summit for refugees on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year. Keystone

Image boosting 

Aid agencies nowadays do try very hard to ensure that celebrities are genuinely committed to their cause, and not simply trying to boost their own standing because, as Kapila puts it “their agents say ‘right it would be good for his image to be seen playing with children’.” 

Aid agencies are also increasingly conscious that the standard celebrity image (rich, white, perfect teeth, designer ‘on mission’ clothes) can be rather off putting. 

With this in mind, in 2011 the World Food Programme appointed Malian singing duo Amadou and Mariam as goodwill ambassadors. 

The pair, who both went blind in childhood, had already done charitable work supporting blind and partially sighted children in their native Mali, and had a huge following for their music in Europe and the United States. 

Their first mission was to Haiti, one year after the devastating earthquake of 2010. For the journalists accompanying them, myself included, it was a somewhat surreal experience. Convoys of UN vehicles took the musicians to various camps for earthquake victims, we viewed neighbourhoods that were completely destroyed, and Amadou and Mariam gave a concert. 

Apart from the live performance, it was difficult to escape the impression that, despite their obvious commitment, the musicians, their UN minders, and the media were just getting in the way of humanitarian work rather than supporting it. 

But away from Haiti, the mission did get attention, and that alone made it, for the WFP, a success, albeit an unquantifiable one. 

Assessing the impact 

As Mukesh Kapila points out, there are no large scale studies of exactly what effect a goodwill ambassador has. “I’m sceptical of the long term impact,” he says. “We need an evaluation of what good these people do.” 

The UNHCR does try to do assessments, says Alison Tilbe, manager of the agency’s Global Goodwill Ambassador Programme. 

“We plan strategically, she explains. “And apply metrics wherever we can to show the return on investment.” 

“This includes things like audience reach and engagement, conversions (for example if their social media leads to visits to our website and then to an advocacy action or donation), and funds raised.” 

And, she points out, goodwill ambassadors are expected to work for nothing. 

“The role is entirely voluntary.  The {ambassadors} are very aware that the UNHCR needs to raise the funds…to run its vital operations, and that many programmes are underfunded.” 

UN agencies also ask their goodwill ambassadors to pay their own travel expenses when on mission, although it is not clear that every ambassador does so. 

Stick with the stars 

After the Mugabe debacle, UN aid agencies will certainly be subjecting their candidates for ambassador to even greater scrutiny. 

When choosing, all UN agencies are supposed to follow guidelines set out by the UN Department of Public Information in New York. That advice might in future include a gentle suggestion to stick with the stars rather than controversial politicians. 

But then, as one UN official wryly pointed out, it could have been so much worse. Just a few years ago, there was a campaign to have members of the Gaddafi family appointed goodwill ambassadors. It was, to the certain relief of the aid agencies, quietly dropped.

You can follow Imogen Foulkes on twitter at @imogenfoulkes, and send her questions and suggestions for UN topics.

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