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Monday, 23 October, 2000, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
UN parades stars
UN logo
The world body wants to highlight its public image
By BBC UN correspondent Mark Devenport

Michael Douglas, Muhammad Ali and Geri Halliwell are among nearly 50 personalities from the arts, entertainment and sports worlds who will gather at UN headquarters in New York later on Monday.

The personalities - all UN Goodwill Ambassadors or Messengers of Peace - will meet the Secretary General Kofi Annan.

They will discuss the role of 'celebrity advocacy' in promoting UN causes such as tackling poverty, fighting the spread of AIDS, eradicating polio and promoting disarmament.

This is the first time so many UN celebrity ambassadors have been brought together, but the organisation's use of well-known personalities goes back nearly 50 years.

I don't want to be presumptuous in thinking that I and the other ambassadors can necessarily change the world by what we do

Danny Glover UN Goodwill ambassador

The song and dance star Danny Kaye was the first ambassador appointed by the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, in 1954.

Since then high profile UN celebrities who have travelled across the world have included the actresses Audrey Hepburn, Susan Sarandon and Mia Farrow, the actor Peter Ustinov, the poet Seamus Heaney and the supermodel Claudia Schiffer.

High profile issues

Some parts of the United Nations system - such as its peacekeepers or its Security Council - will always command attention.

Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn is among many stars who have helped raise the UN's profile

But UN agencies which work on issues such as health, population and long term development find the involvement of a famous face keeps them in the public eye.

The UN Population Fund, which deals with issues like family planning and sexual health, has more Goodwill Ambassadors on its books than any other agency.

Some, like Geri Halliwell, are famous throughout the world - others are so called national ambassadors, selected because they can be role models within their own countries.

An increasing proportion of the UN ambassadors are recruited not from Hollywood, but from the developing countries in which the UN's agencies are most active.

The UN Development Programme's ambassadors include the Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo and the Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour.

Celebrity importance

Mark Malloch Brown, head of the UN development programme, told the BBC that the failures of economic development cost many more lives than wars.

Yet all too often the stories of children dying from preventable diseases and the millions losing their lives because of AIDS in Africa are relegated to the back pages, he said.

"The attachment to the story of a celebrity who clearly cares about the issue allows another go at it," he added.

"That's important because it is only if we can prick public conscience, build public will to solve these problems, that we can raise the resources and the actions of governments to get these problems solved."

Claudia Schiffer
Super model Claudia Schiffer has been a major asset to the UN's publicity efforts

Cynics may regard some of the Goodwill Ambassadors' activities as frivolous or even self-serving.

Mr Malloch Brown acknowledges that the UN has to be careful how its uses it star power so it doesn't trivialise the life and death issues it deals with as 'show business'.

"That would be the wrong connection between these wonderful men and women who serve as ambassadors and what we're trying to do with them," he said.

Good cause

Danny Glover, who starred opposite Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon movies, told the BBC that he decided to help the UN because of its global responsibilities.

Danny Glover
Mr Glover says the UN is for a good cause

"It's the one body that works for the entire world. Since the major aspect of the UN's work is dealing with devastating poverty, I wanted to be a part of that dialogue.

"I don't want to be presumptuous in thinking that I and the other ambassadors can necessarily change the world by what we do, but it's important to draw attention to the issues."

The Goodwill Ambassadors will discuss with Kofi Annan which directions celebrity advocacy should be heading in the 21st Century.

And of course, just by showing up, they will once again raise the UN's profile.

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