by Zach Kornell
Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced shift in the organization’s approach when he delivered a report to the 54th Session of the General Assembly in 1999. In the aftermath of the conflicts that took place in the 1990s around the globe, and the UN’s inability to respond appropriately, Annan realized change was necessary. His new strategy involved broadening the UN’s cooperation with NGOs and renowned individuals.
Sixteen years later, the UN still receives little recognition for its achievements despite decades of sustained effort. Fortunately, the organization is not blind to its perceived lack of relevancy.
What is less clear is whether raising public awareness helps to improve results or it merely detracts from the severity of the problems.
One particular practice is the recruitment of celebrities to promote awareness. The recent speech given by actor Leonardo DiCaprio at the UN Climate Change Summit in September 2014 went viral with the actor’s comments on the severity of climate change.
That same month, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, actress Emma Watson, launched the HeForShe campaign, with a powerful message that proclaimed gender equality was just as important for men as for women.
Within hours, videos of the two speeches were being shared on Facebook and YouTube over one million times. Well-known personalities can bring both global attention and resources to their chosen cause.
Annan’s initiative sprang from the apparent shortfall in public awareness about the work the UN is doing. He wanted to build on the previous success brought by American entertainer Danny Kaye who was the UN Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador.
Appointed in 1954, Kaye told then UNICEF Executive Director Maurice Pate that “one of the organization’s [biggest] problems…was recognition.” The two partnered together for another 33 years and inspired many international aid organizations including the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam) or the World Health Organization (WHO) to follow suit. Celebrities could appeal to an audience that organizations normally cannot reach.
A South Africa-based social commentator, Sisonke Msimang, commented in Politico that “the danger is celebrities oversimplify the complexities of the challenges because their audience is one that’s not used to dealing with nuance.” This creates a paradox when deciding how best to advocate for an important public health concern.
However, the public seems able to concentrate on one issue at a time – leading to a competition between agencies and projects for recognition and funding. The global epidemic caused by cancer illustrates this predicament brilliantly.
Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, was appointed the WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control in 2009. The partnership aims to raise the profile of breast cancer screening and early detection for women. Brinker is often recognized as the force that reinvigorated public attention against cancer in the 1980s.
Cancer constitutes a major health problem and is the second leading cause of death in the world. Globally, it kills more than 7.6 million people every year — more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Yet in comparison to HIV/AIDS, funding for cancer research remains relatively low.
For example, the Unites States Centre for Disease Control (CDC) allotted $24.1 billion for HIV/AIDS activities in its 2014 budget, meanwhile spending merely a fifth of that on cancer-related research ($4.81 billion). The rationale for this budgeting seems disproportionate to the challenge cancer represents.
The appointment of Brinker has proven to be controversial in that is has been more of a distraction. In 2007, Komen funded 170.000 clinical breast exams and 6400 mammogram referrals at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and affiliates to support screening, education and treatment programs in dozens of communities.
Five years later, Komen stopped funding Planned Parenthood when the foundation disagreed with the abortion procedures performed at their clinics. While the original decision to stop funding was warmly received by conservative religious and pro-life groups, it was denounced in editorials, by women’s health advocacy groups and by many politicians. The public relations fallout, and Komen’s eventual reversal, led to a loss of over 40 percent of corporate sponsorships.
Dan Kahan, a Yale professor studying how individuals make decisions based on social cues may have an explanation. He has shown that when people are asked to make decisions about an issue that lacks an ideological association, individuals can adequately assess the evidence they are provided. They do not have a vested interest in a particular outcome. But when the issue is an already politically charged one—such as cancer—or if the researchers manipulate a situation to attach political ideology to a decision, people become less able to parse the evidence.
Ultimately, international organizations and public health specialists are forced to compete with one another to see who is more effective at maintaining the public’s attention.