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African footballers score as U.N. goodwill ambassadors

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 24 Mar 2011 06:34 PM
Author: George Fominyen
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DAKAR (AlertNet) - African solutions to African problems is the mantra of governments across this continent. But what about the goodwill ambassadors that fly around speaking about the issues that touch Africa most deeply, should they be African too?

Just days before an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier between Cameroon and Senegal in Dakar, the United Nations named Senegal's captain, Mamadou Niang, a champion of the U.N. Millennium Campaign.

Niang joins Cameroon's Benoit Assou-Ekotto who plays for English team Tottenham Hotspur as a campaigner for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets world leaders agreed to to significantly reduce poverty, illiteracy and disease by 2015.

Niang's appointment seems to be part of a slowly shifting trend to promote homegrown stars -- Chelsea's Didier Drogba (an Ivorian) and Inter Milan striker Samuel Eto'o (another Cameroonian) are also U.N. goodwill ambassadors -- in a field usually dominated by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow, Christine Aguilera and other Western celebrities.

"We think that sports and athletes are vectors through which we can transmit vital messages to the society and we believe footballers in particular could sensitise people on issues like poverty alleviation and the MDGs," Boubou Dramane Camara, Country Director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Senegal, told me.

Whether African or not, the idea of deploying actors, singers and sportsmen to Africa to evangelise on issues related to poverty and development has long had its critics who doubt if they achieve anything other than heaping pity on the continent.

"Because of their thin political background and agendas, the majority of today's celebrity activists do not pay much attention to the content of what they do. Most of them have busy schedules so the kinds of briefing they receive are limited by their publicists who control their time," analyst Abdul Mohammed blogged for the Social Science Research Council think-tank.

The end result of the celebrity do-gooders phenomenon is to reduce Africa to spectacle and Africans to spectators in the destiny of their own continent. It delegitimizes the African state -- which must be the mechanism for development and emancipation --- and discourages those who try to practice activism in the old-fashioned way, Mohammed argued.

Marina Hyde, a columnist for the British newspaper the Guardian asked why entertainers think they could save the world in her book: How Entertainers Took Over the World And Why We Need an Exit Strategy.

"The skillset requirements of this rapidly proliferating modern role remain shadowy, but it seems to have been created as a way to say: 'Sorry about the bombing/famine/pestilence - we've sent you a celebrity as a goodwill gesture,' Hyde writes,

Would this apply to African football stars who take up ambassadorial roles in the continent of their birth?

Many of them grew up in dirt-poor families and were only able to lift themselves out of poverty through sports. Their rags-to-riches stories make them to key to reaching young people across the continent who yearn to follow in their footsteps, according to advocates of their selection as U.N. advocates.

"They are best placed to engage young people but also to do advocacy on behalf of youngsters towards decision makers, politicians and others who are in a position to make decisions that can help eradicate poverty because they can talk in a very simple way and from experience about issues of social concern," said Nelson Muffuh, U.N. Millennium Campaign coordinator for West Africa.

So it would seem to make more sense to have Cameroon's captain Eto'o, a U.N. Children's Fund Goodwill Ambassador who grew up in the poverty stricken neighbourhood of New Bell in Douala, speaking to Africans and their leaders on the importance of poverty alleviation and children's rights than, say, England star David Beckham, another UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

"It is time Africans spoke for themselves about their issues and prove that they know what needs to be done and how to do it and these footballers are living up to that by taking these advocacy roles," said an adviser of an African international footballer, who did not want to be named.

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