My week with Angelina Jolie

By Paul Anticoni, February 17, 2012
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Many years ago, I was working in the field with the Red Cross when Angelina Jolie flew in as a UN Human Rights Council ambassador.

The world's cameras, normally focused on the red carpets and the Hollywood hangouts, turned their lenses towards some of the most desperate people on the planet and, for a little while at least, the world heard of the tragic situation we were dealing with.

Jolie is currently using her influence to raise awareness of the Bosnian conflict, which began almost exactly 20 years ago.

When celebrities get involved in charity work, two worlds collide. Having worked in international development for nearly 25 years, I can vouch for the fact that it is not particularly glamorous. Dealing with the aftermath of disasters and devising programmes to lift people out of extreme poverty is an enormous challenge. It's about as far removed from Hollywood as it is possible to get.

The media leaves and the suffering goes on

Despite this, there are strong arguments for celebrities and charities to work together. If the aim is to grab attention, getting a celebrity involved is a sure route to success. Jolie is not the only star to support charitable causes. Comic Relief alone sees half the celebrities in Britain distributed to various impoverished nations and it pays off: huge amounts are raised every year.

Of course, while celebrities can bring much needed attention to an issue, in some cases their interest is inevitably short-lived. After their photo opportunity, the media leaves with them, and the suffering goes on.

The idealist in me wishes that society would stand up and pay attention to suffering without the need for celebrity endorsement, but I've come to accept the fact that we must play by the rules of the modern world and use these opportunities.

Take Jolie and Bosnia. She's hit the headlines with her directorial debut, The Land of Blood and Honey, a film that focuses on the conflict in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Over the course of four years, the former Yugoslavia was torn apart by violence; thousands were killed and tens of thousands more fled.

This is a region close to my heart - indeed, I worked in Bosnia during the war. There is a small but resilient Jewish community there, and World Jewish Relief has been involved in the area for years.

At the time of the conflict, WJR, then the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief, worked with the Joint Distribution Committee and Sarajevo's Jewish aid organisation, La Benevolencija, to support Jewish communities in the region. We helped many escape to the UK, US and Israel or to neighbouring countries. We still have a presence there. Our Connections committee supports gifted Jewish students who could not otherwise afford to study, and who play a role in Jewish life by teaching at the community centre and running programmes for children. We also provide food vouchers to 160 families who cannot afford basic meals.

These communities were devastated by the conflict, yet despite the fact that it is startlingly recent, there is a real lack of awareness of the issues that led to these tragic events. Jolie's new film is bringing far more attention to the 20th anniversary of the conflict than there would otherwise have been. If it shines a light on the suffering of the region - if just a tiny proportion of those who watch it learn from the events of the past - it is all for the good.

At WJR, we're well aware of the extra attention a celebrity can bring to our work. Last year, we asked Boris Johnson, Dermot O'Leary, Vanessa Feltz and a whole host of other high-profile people to get involved in our Big Bagel campaign. Recent speakers at WJR events have included Sir Martin Sorrell, Emily Maitlis, Robert Peston and Twiggy.

In the course of my career, I have travelled to some of the most desperate places in the world, and I have seen enough tragedy to last several lifetimes.

Celebrities have the power to bring the world's attention to incredibly important causes, and charities have a responsibility to their beneficiaries to harness every opportunity to save lives and raise awareness.

Paul Anticoni is chief executive, World Jewish Relief

    Last updated: 3:11pm, February 17 2012