Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
Monday, 20 March, 2000, 15:20 GMT
The UN's goodwill hunters

Halliwell, Hepburn and Moore: Three of many
Michael Douglas is one of a seemingly endless stream of celebrities promoting the cause of the United Nations.

Hundreds of stars, from screen icon Sophia Loren to erstwhile TV presenter Magenta Devine, have been seen spreading the word of the international peace organisation at photocalls throughout the world.

Robbie Williams in Sri Lanka
Robbie Williams in Sri Lanka for Unicef
The UN first hit on the idea of celebrity ambassadors in the 1950s, when Hollywood and Broadway star Danny Kaye was taken on to promote children's rights.

He worked tirelessly throughout that year and subsequent decades. It was his success that led to the use of stars, like Sir Peter Ustinov and Audrey Hepburn, on a regular basis.

The current set of celebrities is led by a top flight of seven, called "Messengers of Peace", of which Michael Douglas is one.

Others include boxing legend Muhammad Ali, basketball star Magic Johnson and opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

The Duchess of York did not become an ambassador
These are personally recruited by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. They must have a largely unblemished reputation, a proven interest in humanitarian issues and fame on a global scale.

The seven are expected to work hard - on a voluntary basis - to help focus attention on the work of the UN in general.

Most choose to focus on one particular area. Michael Douglas's main field, for example, is small arms control, while Muhammad Ali is a relentless campaigner for the poor.

Geri's Philippines trip was considered a success
But most other stars are recruited independently by the various UN agencies.

Thus the UN Development Program uses Brazilian footballer Ronaldo to highlight the plight of the poor.

Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell has famously done her bit for the UN Population Fund, promoting safe sex to teenage girls in the Philippines.

And Unesco, the cultural, educational and scientific organisation, recently signed up 60-year-old Italian screen icon Claudia Cardinale, to join French actress Catherine Deneuve and opera singer Montserrat Caballe in promoting its causes.

Hollywood and Broadway star Danny Kaye
Danny Kaye: The first goodwill ambassador in 1953
Each agency has different "ranks" of celebrities who contribute varying amounts of time and effort.

For example Unicef, the UN children's fund, now has five Goodwill Ambassadors, including Sir Peter Ustinov, who represent it on an almost permanent and full-time basis.

Others become spokespeople for specific projects - Roger Moore, for example, is the major figurehead for the Unicef initiative to eliminate iodine deficiency disorders (IDD).

Moore: Helping eliminate iodine deficiency disorders
And there are those, like pop star Robbie Williams, who promote one-off projects or stage occasional benefit gigs.

There are no set procedures or contractual obligations on either side, although there is usually a symbolic swearing-in ceremony.

It is also important that the UN, with offices in more than 200 countries, is represented by an international mix of celebrities.

Many of their most important stars - such as Miss Universe Mpule Kwelagobe, recently appointed Goodwill Ambassador for Botswana for the UN Population Fund - may be almost unheard of in the UK.

Mpule Kwelagobe: Miss Universe and Miss Botswana, at UN HQ
Mpule Kwelagobe: Miss Universe helping the Population Fund in Botswana
On the whole, the UN says it is "very careful" to pick a celebrity with not only global fame, but longevity.

"We can't just have someone who's famous for five minutes," says a spokeswoman.

Similarly, they must also want to do more than just appear caring in front of the cameras.

"Our celebrities do it because they have real compassion for children," says the spokeswoman.

"They have the power to draw the cameras but they don't want the attention for themselves."

And they must be considered uncontroversial.

The Duchess of York almost landed a UN role - with the High Commissioner for Refugees - until the offer was swiftly dropped, amid rumours both of pressure from Buckingham Palace, and of the organisation's concerns about her "unsuitability".

Ronaldo: Campaigns against poverty
Not all branches of the UN are convinced of the wisdom of using celebrities.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) decided to phase out formal international goodwill ambassadors, in favour of letting the stricken speak for themselves.

"Individual countries use goodwill ambassadors on an ad-hoc basis," says a spokeswoman.

"But we feel that the issues speak for themselves."

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

18 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Star takes nuclear message to MPs
01 Feb 00 | World
Ronaldo tackles global poverty
14 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
Church condemns Geri's visit
14 Dec 99 | Entertainment
Sarandon's diplomatic role
31 Jul 98 | Entertainment
Michael Douglas honoured by UN
18 Nov 99 | Entertainment
Robbie's millennium message of hope
18 Sep 98 | Entertainment
Bomb fears hit singers' polio mission
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to other UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories