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article imageMadonna's charity builds 10 schools in Malawi

By Raluca Besliu     Dec 31, 2012 in Politics
Madonna’s Charity, Raising Malawi, announced that it finished building 10 primary schools in Malawi, allowing 4,871 children to be educated in the small southern African country.
In building the schools, Raising Malawi partnered with the global non-profit group buildOn, which has constructed 54 primary schools in Malawi during the past 19 years. The schools were finished six months ahead of schedule. While six of them are already in use, all ten will open their doors in January 2013. More than half of the students will be girls, in a country where girls have little opportunity for education.
The UN Human Development Index ranked Malawi as one of the world’s 20 least developed countries, with 39 percent of its population living below the poverty line, on less than one dollar a day. UNICEF claims that only 26 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls complete primary education, due poverty as well as the long distance traveled to reach schools.
In 2011, Madonna stopped the construction of a girls’ academy just outside the Malawi capital, Lilongwe, after reports of financial mismanagement. It was reported that around $3.8 million had been spent on the school with few results. The academy aimed to provide 500 scholarships to girls from modest backgrounds and prepare them to become future leaders. In announcing the cessation of this project, a decision which enraged the Malawian government, Madonna emphasized that, such an institution would not have been adequate, as over two-thirds of Malawian girls were not educated beyond primary school and, therefore, announced that she preferred to reach thousands, not hundreds of girls, by building several primary schools in the country.
The Malawian government and civil society initially expressed reservations to the singer's new plan. In February 2012, the Malawian national secretary for education criticized Madonna for not presenting a written or verbal communication of her intention to build the schools and emphasized that without the government’s collaboration, she could not know where the schools would be most needed. Madonna’s spokesman disputed this claim by releasing a letter, dated January 30th 2012 and addressed to Malawi's education minister from the Global Philanthropy Group, which manages Raising Malawi. The letter informs the minister about Madonna’s commitment to build ten schools in the district of Kasungu.
Malawian activists worried about Madonna’s intentions in creating the schools. The acting national coordinator of the human rights consultative committee feared that the star could be using her project to raise her public visibility and gain more money for herself. He also expressed concern over the fact that Madonna might be using the schools as an entry point for Kabbalah, the esoteric school of though she follows.
More generally, some intellectuals criticize the current manner in which celebrities engage with development issues. William Easterly argues that celebrities have overstepped the line, by claiming expertise based on the stardom, and starting to lobby politicians. Easterly believes that the world does not need celebrities that promote top-down technocratic solutions that oversimplify complex issues, such as building schools, that transmit patronizing messages about „how the West can save the rest” and often appear alongside international political leaders who are failing to take action. Instead, Easterly believes the world would benefit from „celebrity activists” who challenge power relations and question the status quo, as did John Lennon, who so threatened the American government through his antiwar activism that he was hounded by the FBI, police and immigration authorities. Other critics emphasize that intentionally or unintentionally celebrities often draw more attention to themselves than to the cause they are promoting and the more nuanced development problems.
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