African government accuses Madonna of blackmail

Children at her feet: Madonna visits Malawi with her Malawian adopted son © Getty Images

Madonna has raised millions of dollars in aid of Malawi’s children. But this week, the African nation greeted her with a bruising attack. Are philanthropic celebrities really doing good?

Madonna Louise Ciccone has been called many things in her all-conquering career as a singer and entrepreneur: diva, genius, icon, satanist, goddess of pop, Madge. Now she has another label to add to her collection: ‘bully’.

That is just one of several astonishing insults directed at Madonna in a scathing statement recently released by the government of Malawi in Southern Africa, which also accuses the pop star of desperation, arrogance, attention seeking and even ‘blackmail’.

On the surface, this fury seems baffling and unprovoked. In the last seven years Madonna has provided more financial aid to Malawi than any other individual. Her charitable foundation has helped build schools, improved the impoverished country’s health care and supported community organisations. She has even adopted two Malawian children.

So why is Malawi so hostile? One explanation might be that the press release reflected the feelings of one opinionated adviser rather than the government’s official position – that, at least, is what President Joyce Banda insists.

Even so, there is no doubt that many Africans feel patronised and offended by the attitude of philanthropic celebrities. If reports are accurate, Madonna had expected to be granted an interview at short notice with President Banda, and was put out when her request was refused. It has also been claimed that her entourage grew angry with airport staff when they were refused ‘VVIP’ treatment.

This is not the first time that a celebrity’s attempts at altruism in Africa have backfired. Indeed Madonna herself drew plenty of criticism for her adoptions, when it transpired that both of the chosen ‘orphans’ in fact had living fathers.

Oprah Winfrey was embarrassed when the orphanage she funded was beset by sex scandals; others, such as Kanye West and Wyclef Jean, ran into controversy after their charities were found to have irregularities in their finances.

Ray of light?

But this is about more than a few innocent errors of judgement. Many Africans believe that these clumsy, arrogant celebrities treat Africans like a helpless and pitiful people who ought to greet any attention from the West with pathetic gratitude. Genuine, selfless kindness is always welcome, they say; but if Madonna is after red carpets and hero worship, she should stick to Hollywood.

Enough spite, more sympathetic observers object: perhaps Western celebrities are sometimes a little vain or naive, but at least they are trying to help. In a world where so many of the rich refuse to share their wealth and privilege, Madonna’s attempts at altruism ought to be celebrated and encouraged. Do-gooding is not a dirty word: it is simply doing good.

You Decide

  1. Are celebrity philanthropists like Madonna good for developing countries?
  2. In its statement, the Malawian government claimed: ‘Kindness, as far as its ordinary meaning is concerned, is free and anonymous’. Do you agree?


  1. If you had ten million pounds to spend on charitable donations, how would you use it? Write a list of your top three priorities.
  2. Choose an African nation and make an introductory presentation about it. If the country suffers from problems like war and hunger you can include this – but remember to talk about positive things as well.

Some People Say...

“Charity is the opium of the privileged.’ Chinua Achebe”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m neither a celebrity or a Malawian – why is this relevant to me?
It’s not only superstars who need to consider these issues. Many people think that the whole Western attitude to Africa is shaped by the fact that we mostly hear about it through appeals for charity. That gives people the impression that it is a land of relentless misery and poverty whose only chance of salvation is through Western generosity. In fact, as Africans point out, it is a rapidly developing continent with a huge array of proud and distinctive cultures.

Word Watch

Literally, this is simply a word for a female singer who has achieved superstar status. But it is sometimes also used as an insult because of association with characteristics like self-obsession, rudeness and insincerity.
Someone who worships the devil. Madonna has often used controversial religious imagery, including in the the video for hit single ‘Like A Prayer’, which featured burning crosses and sexualised scenes involving saints. However, there is no actual evidence that she is a satanist.
One of the poorest countries in the world. Over half the population live on under $2 per day, the official international definition of ‘extreme poverty’. Until 2008 its economy was growing at a rate of almost 10%, raising hopes that conditions in the country would soon improve. However, the growth rate has now returned to less than 3%.
Joyce Banda
One of only two female heads of state in Africa, the other being Liberia’s Nobel winning president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Since coming to power after the previous president’s death, Banda has abolished presidential privileges like the fleet of 60 Mercedes Benz cars. She has also introduced job creation programmes in the public and private sector.
A VIP is very important person, so the acronym coined by the Malawian government presumably means a ‘very, very important person’.

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