There was a gathering at the United Nations in New York last Monday that nobody paid much attention to. The World Series and a high-wattage Senate race were distracting New Yorkers. A murderous flareup in the Middle East and a surreal encounter in Pyongyang were distracting the rest of the world.
There is always something, of course, to take our minds off the doings of the U.N., but the timing of this particular event was unusually bad. When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan invited his 48 official “messengers of peace” and good-will ambassadors to assemble, for the first time ever, on Oct. 23 to discuss “celebrity advocacy in an age of cynicism,” he could hardly have foreseen the ironic conjunction of events that would transpire: On the same weekend that the solemn messengers of peace converged on New York, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called a “timeout” from peace efforts between his country and Palestine.
Major local newspapers didn’t even report the U.N. meeting. No wonder the sense of futility was palpable. Yet perhaps participants were too quick to express their frustration and the media wrong to absent themselves. Maybe the U.N.’s celebrity shock troops are not such a bad idea.
In the first place, who are these people and what do they do for the U.N.? Most, predictably, are celebrities of the fluffier variety: several former Miss Universes, an ex-Spice Girl, actors, actresses, musicians, supermodels and athletes. Japan’s Ms. Misako Konno and Ms. Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, both television personalities, fall into this category. There are also some genuine heavyweights: Nobel literature laureates Ms. Nadine Gordimer of South Africa and Mr. Seamus Heaney of Northern Ireland, U.S. children’s-rights activist Ms. Marian Wright Edelman, Italian journalist Ms. Anna Cataldi and Japanese volunteer and activist Mr. Takehito Nakata, for example.
But glitter, rather than gravitas, is the point here. All the messengers and ambassadors are distinguished in their fields and have shown themselves to be civic-minded beyond the norm, but their job for the U.N. is as clear-cut, and as difficult, as simply lending glamour to some very unglamorous causes, including efforts to curb poverty, hunger and overpopulation and to aid refugees. It became clear at last week’s meeting, however, that some of the envoys, envisaging their mission differently, are growing disillusioned. Ms. Gordimer said bluntly that none of those appointed along with her as good-will ambassadors for the U.N. Development Program had had any impact so far on “globalization issues.” Combating world poverty was a job for finance experts, she said: “We are not the right people.” American actress and UNICEF envoy Ms. Susan Sarandon also spoke of her frustration at being limited to fundraising and “doing press” rather than getting anything concrete done on her trips abroad.
Well, of course she didn’t get anything concrete done. Neither she nor Ms. Gordimer nor any of the other 46 is expected to combat misery personally. They are merely high-profile publicists for seven of the U.N.’s key offices, funds and programs and cheerleaders for its broad goals. If Ms. Sarandon is raising funds and “doing press” for programs to provide clean drinking water in Tanzania, then she is doing a useful job and should quit worrying. It is all a question of expectations. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was former Spice Girl Ms. Geri Halliwell, an ambassador for the U.N. Population Fund, who seemed to have grasped this most clearly at last week’s forum. “Fame is like a bright light,” she said. Even if people look at it for the wrong reasons, at least they are looking. And sometimes the glamour gambit pays off: Just think of land mines without Princess Diana.
It is also true that very often it doesn’t. Ours is a cynical age, as any age is bound to be that is so inundated with information — not more problems, necessarily, just greater exposure to them. Boredom and indifference are the age’s inevitable hallmarks, and the U.N.’s celebrities are right to wonder whether even their star power is bright enough to prevail.
One can only hope they don’t give up. The fact is, boredom and indifference are not the main threats to the U.N., a force for good that the world has taken for granted for 55 years. Active hostility and misunderstanding are. In many countries, even in parts of the United States, the U.N. has become a synonym for vague, overarching evil. Cheerleaders, not finance experts, are exactly what the organization needs right now — decent, articulate, photogenic people willing to explain that the U.N. does not want to take over the world, but simply improve lives everywhere. Maybe the celebrities get better audiences doing their day jobs, but if it weren’t for them, there are times when the U.N. might not have an audience at all.
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