ShakiraA pop superstar is trying to take North American philanthropy south, with help from some plutocratic hangers-on, such as Carlos Slim Helú and members of the golden Buffett clan. Matthew Bishop joins them ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Autumn 2008

On a May morning, a convoy of black-windowed SUVs stands in the car park of one of Mexico City's funkiest hotels. They are waiting for Shakira, the Colombian pop diva, who seems to be on pop-diva time. We are about to be whisked away to a press conference, and Shakira is apparently applying the final touches to the answers she will give about the new Latin American philanthropic movement she is leading. The wait gives me time to chat to the rest of her bunch of unlikely hangers-on: a lady from the Catholic Relief Society, Shakira's "philanthropy strategist" Trevor Neilson, and not one but two men called Howard Buffett--respectively, the eldest son and grandson of Warren, the billionaire investor.

"I'm only here because Shakira talked me into it," confides Howard senior, whose charitable foundation received around $1 billion in 2006 when his father pledged to give away his fortune (the bulk of it via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). "I never do this sort of thing. I've never even issued a press release. But when Shakira calls, you show up." He is 53, down-to-earth and likeable. Howard junior, who is acting as semi-official photographer, loads an array of cameras into the SUV.

"Here she is," shouts Neilson. Shakira covers the distance from lift to vehicle so fast she is a blur, and we are off, screeching through the back streets as if we actually cared that we were late. En route, the phone rings and Howard senior is asked if he will give a few million more, so that a nice round number can be announced at the press conference. He agrees; who could say no?

Later, as he sits somewhat uncomfortably on stage alongside Shakira and a troupe of musicians and singers from across Latin America, Buffett is asked what he, an American, is doing there. It is an interesting question, not entirely answered by Buffett's response that "I am a Mexican stuck in an American body".

By turning up in Mexico City, and giving $85m, Buffett is supporting Shakira's attempt to give Latin America a culture of philanthropy like that which has long thrived in America and is now, thanks not least to his father and Gates, booming like never before. Though still only 31, the singer started her philanthropy early, and she has been a quick learner, as befits a longtime reader of The Economist. She launched Fundación Pies Descalzos ("bare feet"), a charitable foundation named after her first big hit album, to help refugee children in Colombia, in 1997, when she was just 20. She is now emerging as one of the world's leading "celanthropists"--celebrities who are adept and professional at using their brand and wealth to play an important role in tackling social issues.

At its best, today's celanthropy is a world away from the often simplistic and ineffective celebrity activism of yore. Where once a few rock stars would turn up in a studio and record a protest song, now celebrities such as Shakira are forming organisations, pursuing strategies (Neilson's firm, Global Philanthropy Group, also advises Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt), and working in partnership with everyone from mainstream charities to governments to big business.

Today's press conference marks the first activities of ALAS ("wings"), a new pan-Latin American foundation focused on children. There will be simultaneous rock concerts in Mexico City and Buenos Aires two nights later, but this is not just a Latino Live Aid. The public will be encouraged to join an internet-based mass movement designed to lobby politicians for specific policy changes, run by a well-funded organisation headquartered in Panama, thanks to a gift by that country's government.

There are clear parallels with DATA, the campaigning organisation established by the U2 singer Bono--the world's pre-eminent celanthropist--which was initially funded by super-rich philanthropists including Gates and George Soros. DATA combines effective insider lobbying (Bono bending the ear of George Bush, for example) with mass activism (DATA was the guiding hand behind the "One" and "Make Poverty History" campaigns to help the developing world). Shakira, similarly, has the ability to generate publicity as one of the world's biggest-selling singers, along with access to powerful people. In July, she shared a platform with Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe, delivering a passionate appeal to the FARC guerrillas to end their armed struggle. She is also involved in the Clinton Global Initiative, the influential philanthropy-fest launched by Bill Clinton in 2005.

Still, the combination of pop-star glamour and earnest policy discussion takes some getting used to. Though the stage is largely populated by musicians in their usual garb, the first speaker at the press conference is an economist from the Latin American Development Bank, who speaks, at some length, about the five areas in which the foundation can help young children from conception (maternal malnutrition is a huge problem across Latin America) through to the age of five.

The goal is to achieve "concrete, specific results" not least by getting "clear commitments from Latin American governments". But the record of those governments in tackling social problems is generally lamentable, so a constant theme of the press conference is the need to harness the "extreme effectiveness of business leaders in how to fix things".

Compared with the United States and other countries with a strong philanthropic culture, the wealthy of Latin America have mostly been tight-fisted and unimaginative, despite having some of the world's highest levels of inequality. But this may be changing, judging by the backdrop to today's press conference, which is adorned with the logos of corporate partners, ranging from McDonald's to Citigroup, as well as the Mexican cement giant Cemex. Also flanking Shakira on stage, looking almost as uncomfortable as Buffett, is the telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim Helú, Mexico's and arguably the world's richest man, whose donations to ALAS have taken the total announced today to $200m.

It is easy to be cynical. Not everyone in Latin America will recognise Shakira's description of "my very good friend", the hugely powerful Slim Helú, as an "unbelievably committed human being with a gigantic heart". Yet, as is increasingly the case in the rest of the world, the rich of Latin America may be starting to realise that their resources and entrepreneurial abilities give them an opportunity to play a role in tackling social problems--and that if they do not play that role, growing inequality may destabilise the political and economic system that has made their wealth creation possible. After the press conference, Shakira insists that this is an historic moment for Latin America, a "chance to make philanthropy a contagious thing, to see a whole continent empowered, doing something for itself". And then she is gone, off to the airport in her convoy of SUVs.


Photograph: stars_are_grey (via Flickr)

(Matthew Bishop is New York bureau chief of The Economist and co-author with Michael Green of "Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World".)