Celebrating our celebrities

Susan Alderson's picture
Susan Alderson Celebrity Co-ordinator

You might have seen some stories in the news in the last week about the findings of a recent university study which claims: ‘celebrity promotion is ineffective at raising awareness but can make stars more popular with the public'.

Actress and ActionAid child sponsor Samantha Womack takes a bike ride with children from Kannet village
Actress and ActionAid child sponsor Samantha Womack takes a bike ride with children from Kannet village
Photo: Christopher Davy/ActionAid

This raised some eyebrows here at ActionAidUK HQ as our long history of working with famous people tells a different story. We work with some incredible individuals who use their fame to help us fight poverty all over the world. They do this because they believe in ActionAid and our work and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Familiarity breeds donations

Working with some of the UK’s best known faces helps us to fundraise for our work with the world’s poorest communities. The last week has been no exception as we teamed up with other charities to raise funds for the Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal for Gaza. When the appeal launched, our celebrity supporters rallied round in force, both with personal donations and support on social media. So far the appeal has raised £9.5 million.

We find working with famous folk helps us reach more people, their passion and enthusiasm for our work is infectious and the best advert we could hope for. By openly supporting ActionAid they are telling their fans they can trust us, making them more likely to engage with us in future.

Not just pretty faces

Our celebrity ambassadors don't just talk about us, they really get involved. In 2012 we took the actress Samantha Womack to visit to our work in Myanmar. After her trip we signed up over 2,000 new child sponsors for children desperately in need. Samantha also sponsors a girl from the region and finds the relationship hugely rewarding.

Earlier this year our super supporter, actor James Purefoy lived below the line for ActionAid, spending 5 days living on no more than £1 a day. He raised over £2,000 in sponsorship and took to twitter to talk to his followers and ours about his experience.

Twitter talk saves lives

James isn't the only one of our celebrity friends to support us on social media. Hardeep Singh Kohli, Fay Ripley, Josie Lawrence and Stephen Merchant are among our stalwart twitterati, sharing our campaigns with their followers and getting involved with personal messages.

When Stephen Fry, the uncrowned king of the internet, tweeted his support for our SheCAN appeal to his 7 million followers, we were over the moon. Not only did it cause a marvellous upsurge in visits to our website, crucially we also saw an increase in donations to help women and girls break the cycle of poverty.

Building trust

There is no doubt that many people support charities because they have personal connections in their lives and families which make specific causes important. But consider, we invite celebrities into our living rooms, we catch up with their news every day on social media – now more than ever people have the opportunity to feel close to their idols.

A recommendation from a trusted face can go a long way and we are excited about continuing to work with so many wonderful people.

"Everything is destroyed. It is hell here." Interview with a Gaza aid worker

Natalie Curtis's picture
Natalie Curtis Journalist - Emergencies and Content

As reports of renewed violence in Gaza reach the UK, ActionAid along with other Disaster Emergency Committee agencies continues to find ways to provide whatever help we can. Yesterday I spoke with Yasser Juma’ Mahmood Toshtash, who is coordinating ActionAid's emergency response inside Gaza.

Homes, streets and shops in Gaza have been destroyed.
The scale of destruction in Gaza
Photo: ActionAid

What can you tell me about life in Gaza at the moment?

Gaza has lost everything. Everything is completely destroyed. It is hell here. People have been killed on the street. Ambulances and fire trucks have been attacked. People could not even get assistance, to stop their bleeding.

The ceasefire started three days ago and we’ve been finding 10 to 20 dead people a day since then under the rubble. That includes bodies from a month ago. People are still searching for their loved ones under the rubble - their sons, daughters, wives, husbands and relatives.

When the planes attacked the cemetery, there were bodies flying over the roofs of the houses surrounding the cemetery. You can’t imagine the situation here. You can’t smell the situation here. It’s a humanitarian catastrophe.

How many people have lost their homes?

There are 187,000 people now living inside UN shelters and schools and other locations in Gaza. So many people are homeless. Imagine what it must be like if you work all your life to build a house for your children and suddenly you are living under a tent with no water, not enough food and no income for your family.

What infrastructure is left?

The water pumps have been destroyed and with it water supplies to houses. 80% of Gaza’s electricity has been destroyed and the main power station in the centre of Gaza has been destroyed.

How are children coping?

Children here are so traumatised. My own children are traumatised. They shout and cry when they hear the planes in the sky. Schools are due to reopen on 24th August, but I don’t know whether this will happen. 150 schools have been damaged.

We need psychosocial intervention, especially therapy for the children. We need playgrounds for our children to start tackling the trauma they’ve faced during this catastrophe.

How is ActionAid helping?

ActionAid has joined up with more than three partners – local organisations – in around five locations in the Gaza strip. For example we're partnering with the Union of HealthCare Committees, through which we’ll help 500-600 people immediately.

We will be working with two churches in Gaza which have been sheltering women and children from Shejaya on the eastern border of the Gaza strip. There were 80,000 people living there and it’s been destroyed in the past two weeks from airstrikes, drone planes and tanks.

Women from local families will be registered with us to receive supermarket vouchers that they can spend on food and essential non-food items like soap, disinfectant and blankets. This is our preferred way of distributing aid because it helps people keep their dignity and ensures they receive precisely what they need. Plus it supports the local economy. They can buy anything except cigarettes, mobile phones, or cash.

We will be sending a message through our partners to the people of Gaza that they are not alone and ActionAid is here to help them.

What are you most afraid of at the moment?

Like many people I’m most worried about the future of my children. I am a father and I want my children to grow up in peace, knowing they have no enemies. I want my children to go to university and have a guaranteed future.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope that this bloodshed will stop as soon as possible. We are all praying to God to stop this bloodshed. We want to live in peace. We want to reopen our borders.

I am hoping for an international peace conference. The vast majority of people killed and affected here are civilians. So civil society is inviting international committees and human rights organisations to investigate on the ground.

I hope the world will stop investing its millions in weapons and destroying humanity and start spending it on developing our country.

Scale of the destruction:

  • 10,770 families' (approximately 64,650 individuals) homes have been totally destroyed or heavily damaged.
  • 1,843 Palestinian people have been killed, including at least 1,354 civilians, of whom 415 are children and 214 are women.
  • Thousands of people are injured and being cared for in five or six hospitals in Gaza.
  • There are severe shortages with medical supplies especially disposables.

ActionAid is part of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and together we’ve launched a crisis appeal.

Further reading on Gaza:

There are 60 million missing women in India – 7,000 go missing each and every day. It’s hard to take in that statistic, because that’s the number of girls being aborted before they are even born, according to estimates by experts. Female foeticide – the practice of aborting girls – is widespread in India: the 2011 census revealed there were only 919 girls to every 1,000 boys.

The Beti Utsav festivities celebrate the birth of girls in India
Photo: ActionAid

The reasons for this are complex, but essentially it is because girls are seen as a burden to families. In India girls will marry and move to their husband’s home so parents with only girls will be left with no one to look after them in their old age – a real fear in a country where there is no welfare or state pension system.

Aborting girls is widespread

That is why 31-year-old Shabana, who I met in New Delhi earlier this year, who already had one daughter, was put under pressure by her husband’s family to abort her baby girl.

“They took me to the clinic to have it done but when I was there I went to the toilet and I felt the baby move for the first time,” she said. “I felt so angry with myself that I was going to abort the baby inside me. I stayed in the toilet for 45 minutes – I didn’t know what to do but I didn’t want to have the abortion.”

Shabana escaped from the clinic, however she was in tears as she explained that when her husband found out she’d given birth to another daughter, he left her and she has never seen or heard from him since. “I am dead to him,” she said simply. She is bringing up her two daughters alone and can only just about make ends meet.

Conviction rates exist but are very low

Young children holding a banners that says "Give your daughter love and affection" ; " I want to study, go forward in life" and ''Boy and girl are equal, this is the message of our campaign"Girls and boys campaign together for equality

When that is the kind of pressure that women face, it is no wonder that so many girls are missing. India has laws in place against sex selective ultrasound tests and aborting girls, however conviction rates are very low.

ActionAid India works to make sure the laws are enforced, but is also trying to change entrenched attitudes with an innovative project across 12 areas of Delhi called the “Beti Utsav” which means "Celebration of Daughters".

Celebrating girls’ lives makes a big difference

Dancing during a Beti Utsav celebration in Bhalswa, New DelhiDancing is part of celebrating girls' lives

ActionAid staff and volunteers go to the homes of families where a girl has just been born and throw a party. They sing in the streets outside, bang drums and distribute special sweets. These celebrations are normal for the birth of a boy, but very unusual for a girl.

Smita Khanijow, from ActionAid India, told me that the Beti Utsav celebrations have really succeeded in changing people’s minds about having a baby girl.

“When we have held these celebrations and congratulated the new mothers they have thanked us for having broken the ice in their families.

"They have shared how we were the first in months to congratulate them and say a few kind words on the birth of a daughter. These gestures go a long way for them as they get social acceptance within their families and society.

Ebola Awareness Clowns: Deadly Serious

Natalie Curtis's picture
Natalie Curtis Journalist - Emergencies and Content

As the Ebola death toll rises to almost 5,000 people and the virus continues to spread across West Africa, clowns are helping us reach thousands of people in Sierra Leone. Scroll through our photo story below to find out how.

How to spread the word

One of the biggest challenges for aid workers trying to contain the virus on the ground is that many people cannot read newspapers and don’t have access to televisions or the internet, and sadly they don't trust information coming from official sources.

This means there's a lot of confusion about how Ebola is contracted, and the only way to get information to them is via word of mouth, through their communities or radio.

Local radio presenter Aliie Badara says: "In the beginning the people were running away from us. They thought we were going to vaccinate them with the Ebola virus. There were so many rumours."

ActionAid clowns making a huge difference

That’s why we’ve been using around 10 Ebola clowns across Kono and Bo districts to help overcome fears and bust Ebola myths.

Mohamed Fofana, ActionAid’s Head of Programmes in Kono and Bo, whose idea it was to bring in the clowns said: “The Ebola clowns have made a huge difference in breaking down fear and stigma, especially with children.”

The clowns have helped us reach almost 50,000 people in Sierra Leone, including over 12,000 children.

There are still thousands more people to reach though. We need your support to continue our life saving work.

Further reading on Ebola

This blog was updated on 5 November 2014

Photos: ActionAid

WW1 changed the workplace for women worldwide

Leslie Sinoway's picture
Leslie Sinoway Communications Team

It was 100 years ago this week that the first world war was officially declared. Media coverage has made it pretty hard to escape that we’re commemorating this anniversary. Personally I can’t stop thinking about it because of the huge difference it made to women – suddenly they became an active part of the workforce.

Women in Liberia
Estella runs the all-female radio station in Liberia
Photo: Anastasia Taylor Lind/ActionAid

Jobs for women tripled after war broke out

Once war officially broke out, the amount of women who were actively employed tripled. Previously less than 10 per cent of the female population worked. Many jobs that we take for granted as being for both sexes here in the UK were previously closed to women. But all of sudden you could be a female policewoman, porter, engineer or even (unheard of!) builder.

Good can come out of darkness

I find it unbelievably tragic that it can take something as horrific as war to open the door to work opportunities for women. Then and now. When I was in Sierra Leone I met young women who were welders – a job that previously would never have been deemed suitable for girls but is now actively being taught.

In Liberia I met female journalists from the Liberia Women Democracy Radio Station. Estella (pictured) set up the channel in 2010 and explained that her chance to become a reporter happened during the conflict: “When the war came, I started to work as a journalist."

Today, she runs the station totally staffed by women and continues to pass on her wisdom to female colleagues and the women in the ActionAid communities they broadcast to alike. She says, “I need to help. We give a voice to women here – lawyers, businesswomen and strong teachers."

Conflict forces equality

During the Burundi genocide of the early nineties, a remarkable woman with whom we worked did more with her life than it is possible to imagine anyone, regardless of gender, ever being capable of. In 1993, Maggy Barankitse, was forced to witness her community being massacred, including close friends and members of her adopted family. Not only did she manage to save a great number of children from the conflict, but she also went on to look after and raise many of them, going on to set up an orphanage.

Amongst her numerous other initiatives, she built homes for orphans, a bakery, cinema and a garage. Not achievements that I believe could have been hers in a time before the conflict, a time when a women’s place was most certainly in the home.

ActionAid helps women to become self-sufficient in all sorts of jobs in countries that have experienced conflict and are at conflict today.

Fighting the Ebola outbreak on the ground

Mike Noyes's picture
Mike Noyes Head of Humanitarian Response

In the last few days, the media has been awash with speculation that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could reach Britain. Whilst the risk is slight and our effective and well organised health services should be able to handle any threat posed, the level of public interest reflects the fear this terrifying disease inspires.

Kadiatu Lamboi teaches villagers how to recognise and contain Ebola in Bo, Sierra Leone
Kadiatu Lamboi teaches villagers how to recognise and contain Ebola in Bo, Sierra Leone
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

Imagine then how much more frightening it must be in the communities on the frontline of the outbreak, in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. My colleagues in Sierra Leone tell me people view hospitals in the affected areas as death zones and people who are sick are afraid to go for treatment in case their neighbours suspect they are carrying Ebola. 

Talk of enforcing quarantines on whole villages and carrying out door to door searches, actions which effectively criminalise people for falling sick and being scared, only serves to make the problem worse.

Cutting through fear to spread messages of prevention

In the communities where we work, ActionAid is getting the message out that, whilst there is a real need to be concerned, simple effective hygiene and preventative measures can do a lot to reduce the risk of infection and disrupt the spread

Good hand washing, the use of disinfectants and avoiding physical contact, especially with sick people, all make a big difference. By working with local volunteers and community leaders, we’re making sure these messages come from people whom families trust and are not seen as an outside message from strangers.

We are also working closely with local radio stations, the most common source of news and information in these isolated rural communities. Our aim is to provide consistent factual information about Ebola to people who feel frightened and confused. We are working to fight the myths that surround this horrific virus, helping people to protect themselves and contain it at source.

Economic implications of the Ebola outbreak

At ActionAid we’re also becoming increasingly concerned about the effect this outbreak is having on poor families in the affected communities. With markets closed or slowed down and with the price of hygiene materials like soap and bleach rocketing as demand outstrips supply, the outbreak is having an economic impact as well. 

Once the immediate threat is over, thanks to our long term presence in the districts we’re working in, we’ll be able to support people to recover economically from the shock.

The fight against Ebola is far from over

We’re now about half way through our planned 45-day campaign in Sierra Leone, and whilst so far the outbreak in the districts where we are working has stayed relatively stable, we cannot afford to be complacent. Appeal funds from our supporters are allowing us to plan for a continuation of the campaign and to expand our work in other parts of Sierra Leone and Liberia to keep spreading messages of prevention.

Find out more about Ebola: