June 22, 2005

Academics, celebrities and their proposed solutions

With all the current publicity about Live 8 and debt relief, it’s worth asking why the majority of airtime goes to singers, pop stars and those who generally don’t deal with the pertinent issues day in, day out. Without meaning to flog a dead horse, take the issue of ‘trade justice’; the idea (minus caveats) that poor countries should be free to erect barriers as they see fit, removing them when they think the time is right.

Take that idea into any politics/economics department across the country and you’d be faced with counter-arguments about moral hazard and the entrenchment of special interest groups from undergraduates and professors alike. However, the public won’t hear such views outside of universities and op-ed pieces in select broadsheets.

It’d be foolish to think the voices of celebrities are more prominent because they care more for the causes they champion. I think the popularity of their cause is down to the fact that people can play an active role in the solutions they propose. If ‘trade justice’ is the goal, we can walk around wearing white wristbands to highlight the issue in the minds of government. If the solution is more aid, we can dig into our pockets and whip out some change or a debit card.

Contrast those solutions with the view that institutions in African need to change if poverty is to be eliminated; the view that corruption and internal conflict must cease. How do such proposals allow the public to participate? We can’t donate institutions and we can’t donate peace. Wearing wrist bands is useless given that African leaders won’t see them. The true solutions to the problems abroad involve inaction on our part and proactive movements abroad.

Overall, the views that gain widespread popularity and acceptance are those which permit public participation. Any solution, however valid, which isn’t conducive to domestic action, will be dominated by anything that gets people out of the house and makes them feel good about themselves temporarily. The problem lies not with appeal of celebrities versus stuffy academics, but with how sexy the proposed solutions are.

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