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Use Bollywood actors for diplomacy: Canadian expert

New Delhi, Feb 10 (IANS) Angelina Jolie, Bono, George Clooney...and closer home Arundhati Roy, Shabana Azmi, Amitabh Bacchan - celebrities all and activists too.

2008-02-10T10:01:00Z
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New Delhi, Feb 10 (IANS) Angelina Jolie, Bono, George Clooney...and closer home Arundhati Roy, Shabana Azmi, Amitabh Bacchan - celebrities all and activists too.

Citing these examples, a visiting Canadian expert on international affairs says the Indian government should train Bollywood actors in the art of diplomacy as they have access to international circles of wealth and power and wield a lot of influence.

Andrew Cooper, an associate director at the Ontario-based think tank, Centre for International Governance Innovation, is currently in India to promote his book, 'Celebrity Diplomacy' - a slim, 150-page treatise on the new high wattage emissaries from the film and music industry.

Taking a leaf out of the smooth interaction between high-profile activists and CEOs of top companies at the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, he said that movie stars have a 'different sort of access to influential networks', as compared to conventional diplomats.

Struck by the 'soft power potential' of the Indian film industry across large swathes of South Asia, West Asia and Africa, he suggested, 'If they (film stars) can go through some training by the government, they can be a huge asset for the country.'

In his book, he has taken note of some of the star activists in India, especially Roy, Azmi and Bachchan, but feels that the full potential of star power, whether from movies, sports or corporate houses, is still to be tapped properly.

Cooper's interest in researching the history, impact, practice and future of 'celebrity diplomacy' was triggered by the amount of 'face time' that two middle-aged rock stars received with heads of state at the annual G-8 summits.

In fact, at the last G-8 meeting in Heiligendamn, Germany, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got only a quick 'pull aside' meeting with US President George Bush. In contrast, Irish band U2 member Bono and rock icon Bob Geldof had long discussions with Bush on development aid and Africa, complete with photo opportunity.

The idea about using celebrities to endorse good causes was pioneered by Unicef in the 1950s, and even selected its first goodwill ambassador entertainer Danny Kaye to pick up the Nobel peace prize on behalf of the world body in 1965.

In the 1990s, actress Audrey Hepburn was one of the most visible faces in news columns bringing much-needed attention in the famine-ravaged areas of Africa. The mantle of celeb do-gooder was eventually taken over by Princess Diana promoting a worldwide ban on landmines.

In contemporary times, we have a surfeit of famous names jet-setting across the world, from Jolie for refugees to Clooney in Sudan to British entrepreneur Richard Branson on climate change.

'They (celebrities) do the whole public diplomacy more naturally, being used to being in the limelight and creating media events. Jolie alone has 18 public relations professionals working for her,' he said.

But, while earlier celebrities kept strictly to the script of bringing much-needed media spotlight to neglected issues, the current lot are more assertive in not just choosing their cause but also pushing their envelope in terms of solution.

'The new generation is very impatient. They want things to happen now,' he said. Not surprising, he noted, 'there is also a lot of ego which goes with it'.

But Cooper was more impressed with the possibility of transnational foundations, backed by billionaire businesses, being able to make a solid dent in any area of public good, rather than more traditional celebrities.

He cited the case of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a budget for health projects 'bigger than that of World Health Organisation'. Here, Cooper said, Indian business groups have to go on a steep learning curve in terms of ambition and management of social advocacy and development projects.

The celebrity diplomats are not just independently working in their own orbits, but rather have often got together to learn from one another. 'For example, Bono and the Gates are very close, and it seemed that the former was mentoring the latter,' he said.

While stars have been quite successful in highlighting and fundraising for social issues, they have not had a good record in complex political conflicts. But there is now a growing cast of celebrity diplomats, who are challenging the 'traditional assumptions of quiet diplomacy', says the book.

'Mia Farrow was careful not to criticise the Sudanese government or rebels in the Darfur conflict but rather is targeting China's arms sales to the Sudan government by linking to Beijing Olympics,' said Cooper.

While, trans-border celebrity diplomacy is currently a phenomenon only in the north, he believes 'this is certainly going to go to the south'. Cooper gave the 'stand out' example of Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho, who has been working across Latin America as a Unicef ambassador.


Shabana Azmi Manmohan Singh Angelina Jolie Arundhati Roy


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