The UN describes goodwill ambassadors as “foot soldiers”, but it seemsthey haven’t spent much time in the trenches. David Beckham has held the title for Unicef since 2005
By Oscar Quine
He has completed one UN mission, spending just four days in Sierra Leone. But Beckham and his 148 fellow goodwill ambassadors are fighting a new war for the UN. It is not a war in the hospitals of Beirut or schools of Darfur but in the pages of glossy magazines.
UN officials talk of an “added value” equation in the goodwill ambassador programme. Whilst celebrity ambassadors might not put in many hours they are deemed to add value to causes by mere association. This equation may work out when the super-famous faces of Clooney or Jolie are involved. However, it is questionable whether the sums add up when lesser-known ambassadors Senegalese businessman Mansour Cama or Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung are considered. And how much has Sir Roger Moore achieved in his role as advocate of prevention of iodine deficiency disorder?
Since American actor Danny Kaye first took on the role in 1954, the programme has grown drastically. The proliferation of goodwill ambassadors, especially since the 1990s, demonstrates the value that celebrity is now deemed to have in selling anything from shampoo to charity.
The ambassadors are paid only $1 a year for their work and are encouraged to finance their own flights. However, a spokesperson for UNAids admitted that goodwill ambassadors are under no obligation to complete tasks, that the programme has no set budget and past celebrities have been issued with UN passports. “There’s no real governance,” she said, “the essence of the role and what’s expected is in its title.”
Here, Southeast Asia Globe takes a look at some of the famous faces of the past six decades and how they lived up to the role.
One of the good ones. Hepburn worked closely with the UN for 30 years before being appointed goodwill ambassador in 1989. In the three years following her appointment, she visited 16 countries across five continents promoting a variety of causes. All this in spite of being diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1992, which would claim her life a year later. Hepburn stated that her devotion to the cause of Unicef came from seeing its work first hand as a child in war-torn Germany. Those close to her also claim she was consumed by images of the dying children she had seen on her various missions. Food for thought perhaps for ambassadors such as David Beckham, who has held the title since 2005 despite only making one mission in that time.
Perhaps the most famous face of the UN, Clooney has also become an important voice in the Darfur debate. As well as making trips to the area, he has also demonstrated how celebrities can use their talents for the good of the cause they’re tasked with representing. In 2007 he produced and narrated Sand and Sorrow, a documentary on the situation in Darfur, and co-founded Not On Our Watch, an NGO aimed at combatting mass atrocities. In 2008, he was named a Messenger of Peace: the UN’s highest honour. Just a year later, it seems Clooney may not be in their good books. In February, following fears that Clooney might criticise Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the UN announced it would be pulling the star’s security as he travelled through Chad. An action not based on goodwill considering a French representative of Save the Children was murdered on the same roads last year and the car-jacking rate stands at one every three days. According to a UN official, ambassadors must be “provocative and political”. But not too provocative, or too political it seems.
Appointed Unicef goodwill ambassador in April 2004, Chan hasn’t quite put the hours in. His Unicef profile states he has made just two trips to Cambodia and one to Vietnam during this time. Undoubtedly a tireless charity worker – half of his US$128 million fortune is earmarked for the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation – his role at the UN seems to rely heavily on, what one representative called “added value”. With massive appeal across Asia – he is known locally as Long Chin – Chan demonstrates the faith the UN places in the selling power of celebrity. As one UN insider stated: “The names have got to be big. If a celebrity has the time to sit down and write us a request to become ambassador then they’re not a big enough celebrity.
Halliwell was appointed goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in 1998 and with it, ‘girl power’ found an unlikely place in world politics. One of the most outspoken goodwill ambassadors, Halliwell began her tenure by stating: “Ever since I’ve entered the media arena, I’ve always stood for the empowerment of women… that’s what the UNFPA is about.” In fact, UNFPA bill themselves as supporting the use of population data for policies that ensure equal opportunities. She caused controversy on her first visit to the Philippines. Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines spokesperson, called for a cessation to her campaigning. “It’s like sending Salman Rushide to a Muslim country as a goodwill ambassador”, he said, adding that the main problem in the Philippines was not over-population but wealth redistribution.
Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein
One of the newest additions to the UN’s elite of Messengers of Peace. Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein’s appointment represents recent efforts to widen the programme’s appeal. Japanese television personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi and Malian Kora player Toumani Diabaté may not be well known in the West but ensure the UN’s message is global. Her appointment also marks a diversification in the fields from which ambassadors are picked. She escaped controversy in 2006 despite accusations that her husband Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of UAE was starving children to produce camel jockeys. At the same time, Princess Haya held the role of goodwill ambassador for the World Food Programme.
The original goodwill ambassador. Kaye was named ‘ambassador-at-large’ for Unicef after a chance meeting with its executive director Maurice Pate aboard a transatlantic flight. Kaye and later ambassadors were heavily informed by this setting. Charged with “educating the public on impoverished children in deplorable living conditions” Kaye embarked on a world tour. Taking to the skies in his private 747, he visited 65 cities in just five days. In doing so, he set the standard for the three-day photo-op “missions” that ambassadors now undertake. It also raised the question for the first time: who’s getting the publicity?