As a devastating famine rips its way across eastern Africa and America continues its economic slump, the U.S. government's development arm has teamed up with MTV this holiday season to try a new way to raise much-needed funds to help many of the world's poorest people - auctioning off celebrity merchandise.
For the first time in its 50-year history, the United States Agency for International Development resorted to direct targeting of the American public to raise money; using an ad campaign and calling in the "big guns."
The campaign, known as the FWD Campaign, featuring musicians (Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, and Trey Songz), MTV reality stars (the cast of Jersey Shore and their merchandise) and Hollywood actors (Uma Thurman, Josh Hartnett). MTV says nearly $4,235 has been raised for such items as a pair of autographed sunglasses from Snooki and the opportunity to meet the cast of Jersey Shore.
The proceeds from donations and celebrity merchandise go to eight humanitarian agencies working to stem the ongoing famine in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The total can provide a month's worth of food for over 140 children, according to the site.
"The FWD Campaign for the Horn of Africa is the first public awareness campaign USAID has ever run," USAID spokesperson Matthew Johnson said. "While we've done a few things here and there with celebrities and MTV-type organizations, this is the first formal campaign which we've partner together."
More than a dozen items were auctioned-off, from an autographed Kelly Clarkson CD to Beavis and Butt-Head bobblehead dolls. In an online video Ms. Thurman, Mr. Hartnett, and others plead to viewers to donate $10, or to simply forward the video in an email.
"There is hope," Geena Davis says in the video, "saving lives doesn't take a lot."
Over the last six months, the worst famine in more than 60 years in eastern Africa has eaten away at the livelihoods of more than 13 million people. Farmlands have dried up; livestock have died, USAID says. Hundreds of thousands may be on the brink of starvation, humanitarian agencies have said.
For decades the United States has provided billions of dollars in public funds to humanitarian relief and development around the world, with bases in countries from Bangladesh to Burundi. But the global financial crisis has left many in America jobless, and the government scrambling for ways to cut spending. Some of the first expenditures to go in many western nations has been foreign development aid.
"The world is in an unparalleled time of economic crisis," the Council on Foreign Relations said in a report in 2009 "As the global marketplace retrenches, there is great danger that the poorest billion people will be abandoned."
Over the last decade A-list celebrities have helped fill that void, wielding their star power to bring attention to far-off conflicts: George Clooney in Sudan. Ben Affleck in Congo. Angelina Jolie virtually all over (she has toured Tunisia, Afghanistan, and Sudan as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador). But the FWD Campaign is the first time the American government formally locked arms with Hollywood.
There certainly is money to be made. Two tickets to MTV's New Years celebration at Times Square sold for $1,300; enough money to feed a family of six for more than five months, according to the campaign. Passes to meet the cast of Jersey Shore went for over $750 and Snooki's sunglasses went for $280.
The campaign ended on December 18th.