The teenage face of Bush and Blair
The world’s leaders have hijacked a popular teenage character to give voice to their flawed views on global poverty.
It seems like the authentic voice of a teenage girl confronting the sudden recognition of the terrible scourge of world poverty. From her bedroom Lonelygirl15, also known as Bree, tells anyone who is prepared to watch her online video about her shocking discovery: ‘Believe it or not, I actually have something important to tell you about today. And, for once, it’s not me.’ (1)
She goes on to recite some of the grimmest statistics on global poverty and inequality. Almost half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, 20 per cent of the world’s population consumes 86 per cent of its resources, every three seconds a child dies of poverty. The viewer is led to assume that a friend is filming her or perhaps she is even recording herself.
But on closer examination there is something odd about the video. The solutions she supports are exactly those promoted by campaigns such as Make Poverty History and by Western governments: debt cancellation, more and better aid, fair trade. Strange that a teenage girl should spontaneously devise solutions that are identical to those promoted by the world’s leaders (2). Also the production values of the video look a little too sophisticated for even the most tech-savvy teenager. At the end of the video the web address www.millenniumcampaign.org flashes up on the screen (3).
In fact the video is about as authentic as teen dramas such as One Tree Hill and The OC. It was made by Y&R, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, on behalf of the United Nations (4). The UN decided to use a character who was already a teenage phenomenon to promote its Stand Against Poverty campaign. (For more on LonelyGirl15 and other internet fakery, see MyScam: The PR puff behind ‘internet stars’ by Emily Hill.) It apparently figured that by using popular websites such as YouTube and MySpace, as well as a television campaign, it could win support among young people.
The immediate aim of the Lonelygirl15 poverty campaign is to get people to stand up – literally – against world poverty. Last weekend the UN’s Millennium Campaign asked people to stand as a gesture of support for the official Millennium Development Goals. These are official targets, endorsed by world leaders in 2000, aimed at reducing world poverty eg, reducing by half the proportion of the world’s population living on less than one dollar a day in 2015 compared with 1990 levels. (5)
The lack of ambitions embodied in these goals has already been criticised in a number of articles on spiked (6). For instance, even if the first goal were achieved it would mean hundreds of millions of people would still be living on less than a dollar a day in 2015. There would also be many more just above the one dollar threshold. Make Poverty History – which essentially aims to win popular support for these goals – is not about making poverty history in the true sense of the term. At best, it supports reducing the worst aspects of poverty for the world’s poorest over a relatively long time period. Such reductions would probably come about in any case, as a result of economic growth, without any intervention from politicians.
With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see a pattern emerging in relation to all these campaigns. Stand Against Poverty, Make Poverty History and Bono’s Product RED campaign have several features in common (7)
For a start all of them involve minimal effort on behalf of supporters of the campaigns. What is regarded as important is making a visible gesture rather than confronting adversity, attempting to understand the causes of poverty or even donating money. For Make Poverty History it was the white plastic wristband. For Stand Up Against Poverty it was getting to your feet. And for Product Red the key is to shop ‘ethically’: either using an Amex RED credit card or buying goods approved by Bono. (Admittedly for some celebrities it takes a more ostentatious gesture. Angelina Jolie and Madonna have led the way with the adoption of little black babies (8)).
Such campaigns appeal to an amorphous sense of goodness among the participants. Those who support such campaigns seem desperate to demonstrate that they are morally correct individuals. In this sense the white wristband or standing up is an expression of piety. It can almost be seen as a form of religion-lite for the early twenty-first century.
The supposed beneficiaries of such campaigns, the poor of the third world and especially Africa, hardly figure except as victims. There is no shortage of statistics about how the poorest of the poor suffer as a result of extreme poverty – and of course they do. But the possibility that Africans might have the capacity to make their own history or transform their own societies is not considered. In fact, the goal of raising Africa’s standard of living to that enjoyed in the West would be seen as undesirable by most of today’s anti-poverty campaigners. They would use environmental and other reasons as excuses to deny Africans the right to decent living standards.
Finally, although they present themselves as grassroots campaigns they are all dictated from above. The ideas and demands put forward were all endorsed by world leaders before being presented to the general public. The Millennium Development Goals are the product of discussions among the world’s most powerful leaders rather than the world’s poor. Pop stars such as Bono and teen characters such as Lonelygirl15 are used as ways to sell these ideas to the public in an age of extreme cynicism towards politicians.
For the world’s leaders the attraction of such campaigns is two-fold. They help provide them with a sense of purpose. It is possible for political leaders to feel as though they are doing something meaningful when they generally lack any direction. In addition, they can feel they are somehow connected to mass of the population, including young people, at a time when they feel particularly isolated.
Despite the teenage face, Lonelygirl15 is only a puppet. The words she speaks in her anti-poverty videos are not hers but those officially sanctioned by the world’s leaders. The real voices behind the face are those of George W Bush and Tony Blair.
(2) See Daniel Ben-Ami Poor ambitions for the world
(4) Suzanne Vranica “UN enlists internet start for antipoverty pity” Wall Street Journal 9 October 2006
(6) See Daniel Ben-Ami Poor ambitions for the world
(7) On Product RED see Daniel Ben-Ami, Why the new Amex card makes me see RED
(8) Mick Hume, Why is Madonna treating Africa like a little victim that needs adopting The Times (London), 13 October 2006