Celebrity charity stirs controversy

3/1/07 -- CARISSA MARSH -- A&E Editor
 Some say there is no such thing as a good deed, and that altruism is dead. But these cynical views have not stopped people from donating, volunteering or, if you’re Oprah Winfrey, building an extravagant $40 million school in South Africa.

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened in January. The talk show diva
handpicked 152 young girls out of 3,500 applicants to attend her school, just 40 miles
south of Johannesburg.

While most people would not cast stones at Oprah for building a school that will help
hundreds of poor girls who would otherwise not get an education, some are skeptical
about the specifics.

According to MSNBC, Oprah spent the past five years developing plans for the school.
And in classic Oprah style, she had big, extravagant plans for the project.

Set on 22 acres, the complex boasts 28 buildings featuring oversize rooms reminiscent of
five-star hotels. The resort-like campus also includes a yoga studio, beauty salon, indoor
and outdoor theaters, hundreds of pieces of original tribal art and colorfully tiled sidewalks.

This seems a bit much for impoverished African girls. Had the yoga studio been left out, I
think they would have hardly missed it. Sadly, just the idea of running water and a safe,
clean place to sleep is a huge step up from the living conditions in South Africa.

In fact, the South African government planned to collaborate with Oprah in building the
school but backed out as news outlets began reporting criticism that the luxurious
academy would be too “elitist” for such a poor country.

Of course the media mogul shoos away any criticism that she has gone overboard. Money
is no object, and she said the girls deserve the best.

Still, it is hard to ignore the sinking feeling that celebrity charity is not at least partly for
show. Oprah could be called the biggest do-gooder in the world— a modern day Mother
Teresa— but her media visibility puts her generosity on display, leaving it open to praise
and criticism. Suddenly a charitable action looks like a publicity stunt.

Oprah’s giving spirit should not be discounted and it would be impossible for her to avoid
scrutiny, but she could take it down a notch.

Better yet, the funds used to build the yoga studio and beauty salon could have been used
to build another school, a well or a clinic. Though Oprah was quoted saying it takes $50
million to build a good school, I would hazard to guess a school could be built for less,
freeing up more of Oprah’s checkbook to finance other good deeds, or admit more
deserving applicants.

Oprah’s buddy Bono is also in on the celebrity charity trend. He created the new (RED)
campaign that works to fight AIDS in Africa by appealing to our nation’s materialism. When
consumers purchase (RED) products— such as Motorola phones, Gap T-shirts and Apple
iPods— part of the profits is used to buy and distribute anti-retroviral medicines in Africa.

I will give it to Bono, this is a smart business model that will work because Americans love
to spend and can’t pass up a new trend. But it’s disturbing that in order for people to
donate they need to get something in return. It is convenience charity and the American
public is a good target audience.

Just $10 from every $200 iPod purchase goes to buying life-saving drugs. People should
be able to donate $10 on their own, or forgo getting the latest thing and instead put all
$200 to good use.

At the end of the day, I believe helping others, no matter what the motive, is all that really
matters but it is still something to think about. Compassion and goodwill are not dead, but I
would like to see a return to true altruism. 

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