BOSTON — At first we made fun of Princess Diana.
When she came to Zimbabwe in 1993, it was her first international visit since her separation from Prince Charles. The cynical view of the press was that Diana was desperately trying to keep her role as princess alive by making such celebrity visits.
Our jaundiced view melted when we saw her visit a grimy hospital where she took into her arms and hugged a young child dying of AIDS. She held hands with another, for a period of time that lasted much longer than a photo opportunity.
No one in Zimbabwe had broken down the stigma of AIDS as much as Diana’s empathy and close physical contact.
A journalist colleague worked for years to write articles about the campaign against anti-personnel landmines. I, too, reported on the issue, writing stories about African amputees caused by the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel landmines that remained hidden and deadly across wide swathes of territory, long after the conflicts ended. Our articles never got the kind of placement in the media that we felt they deserved.
Then Princess Diana went to Angola in January 1997. Iconic images of her walking through landmine areas and sitting with young amputees were on the front pages of every newspaper in the world and were beamed by every television network. She made an impassioned statement against anti-personnel landmines and urged all responsible governments to stop using them, producing them and selling them.
Single-handedly Diana made the anti-landmine campaign a hot topic.
Her views went against official British policy and top defense officials denounced Diana as a “loose cannon” and dismissed her as “ill-informed” on the issue of anti-personnel landmines. It was a standoff between the British defense ministry and the princess.
There was a groundswell of public opinion against any British involvement in the worldwide trade in anti-personnel landmines. Diana persisted in her campaign, visiting Bosnia in August to highlight the work of the Landmine Survivors Network.
Days later Diana died in a car crash.
Months later the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Diana’s work was credited with contributing to its success.
A year later Diana’s work was praised at the launch of the Ottawa Treaty, an international agreement to ban anti-personnel landmines.
Divorced from Prince Charles and without a defined role, Diana may have kept herself in the glow of celebrity with her charity appearances. However she succeeded in turning under-covered causes into issues of compelling public interest.
Now a new brigade of celebrities — this time from Hollywood — is trekking to Africa. George Clooney has campaigned against human rights abuses in Sudan’s Darfur. So has Mia Farrow. Matt Damon has campaigned against human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and started H20 Africa, an organization to promote clean water in Africa. Oprah Winfrey opened a school for girls in South Africa. Ashley Judd went to eastern Congo to raise awareness that our mobile phones contain metals mined under abusive conditions.
Bono has crisscrossed Africa and the globe to argue for the need of a more equitable world economic order. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie speak of the need to improve child health care in Africa and went so far as to give birth to a baby in Namibia. Madonna has adopted two Malawian children and launched an educational project, Raising Malawi.
This new scramble for Africa, in which the stars carve out their own areas for pet projects, is an easy target of humor. In "Dr Clooney, I presume?" the trend was lampooned in Mother Jones including a witty interactive map of Africa showing the stars’ different areas of influence.
Right now George Clooney is in southern Sudan to warn of the danger of a looming civil war if the upcoming referendum on the independence of the south from the north does not go well.
Thousands of words have been written about the conflict looming between north and south Sudan, but Clooney’s trip — and the passionate speeches he makes when he comes back this week — will doubtless achieve far more in goading the international community to much-needed action in Sudan.