Thursday, July 2, 2015

  Angelina Jolie (here with William Hague in the Democratic Republic of Congo) is that rare creature, a celebrity who knows her stuff. Photograph: Iggy Roberts/AFP/Getty Images

Recently, some celebrities have upped the ante by actually getting involved in the work. Again in Haiti, one film star turned camp manager was initially known for turning up at UN meetings and yelling at those present that if they didn’t do what he said he’d name them personally on CNN as holding up the relief effort. (What’s that, Karma police? Oh, OK. It was Sean Penn). Later on, as we became colleagues and vaguely friends, he would call me up and pretend to be various strange people. I always fell for it and my protests that it really wasn’t fair – he’d won two Oscars and I was usually hallucinating with exhaustion – generally fell on deaf ears.

Sean Penn did at least calm down – and learn his trade. Over the subsequent months he and the work of his organisation J/P HRO (Haitian Relief Organisation) earned at first grudging and then genuine respect. And he’s not the only aid ambassador who has done his homework. A smitten former UNHCR-er remembers working with Angelina Jolie with misty eyes. “She knew more about refugees, and had been to more places than I had,” he sighs. “She had her own cameraman, so all I had to do was find the locations and the refugees.” Another long-standing project manager said: “I was impressed with her in Haiti, in Jordan and in Sri Lanka. She left experts speechless every time.”

I wish more were like her. Or like the English football star whose only request on a gruelling trip to Sierra Leone with a packed schedule and very basic accommodation was that he could have the evening to kick a ball about with some local kids. (Yes, it was David Beckham.) Or that agencies could use celebrities who actually mean something to the people they are visiting (the excitement in Haiti when Lionel Messi came to town was genuinely moving). Or get celebs who are actually willing to do stuff – like Diana walking through that minefield – rather than just smile for the camera.

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