The XX Factor

Madonna and Malawi: How Not To Help

The short answer to the question of why Madonna’s largest charitable effort, Raising Malawi, failed to build a school in Malawi after spending $3.8 million on the effort and raising some $14 million more appears to be perhaps the most obvious one: Kabbalah. Mocked by many as the Jewish answer to Scientology, the Kabbalah Centre is known for its loose approach to what were once advanced religious teachings and for the lavish lifestyle of its founder, Michael Berg (co-founder of Raising Malawi) and his family-and, of course, for its most famous student. Raising Malawi was, in theory, a separate organization, but as Wayne Barrett reports in Newsweek , the two were always “inextricably intertwined,” as were their finances. Asked by Barrett how Raising Malawi and the Kabbalah Centre kept their funds separate, the center’s tax attorney said “I don’t know if they have a structure.” Perhaps “Raising Malawi” would have been more aptly named “Raising Money.”

Madonna and Berg have hired some heavyweight PR people to manage the end of Raising Malawi’s goals, and their go-to strategy is to place the blame on Anjimile Oponyo, a former employee of  IMF and World Bank who built schools in Lebanon while working for the UN’s Development Program. Damage-control efforts include accusing her of “outlandish expenditures” such as her agreed-upon $90,000 salary (a pay cut from her previous jobs) and a used car, while glossing over the elaborate and expensive ceremonies/photo ops conducted by Madonna and Berg in Malawi as well as the fact that most of the money that’s already been spent by Raising Malawi ($3 million of that $3.8 million total, with little but a single engraved brick to show for it) was spent in Los Angeles, not Africa.

I wanted to credit Madonna for being blinded by her always considerable ambition, but at least with an admirable goal. Instead, it looks like just another case of a dubious charitable endeavor promoted by a star who should be smart enough to know better. Sadly, in her rush to re-burnish her own reputation, Madonna and her people are pretty much throwing the very country she wanted to help under the bus. Implicating Oponyo (whose sister is the vice president of Malawi) and suggesting local corruption may help Madonna and Berg, but it won’t do much to encourage further donations or investment in Malawi, whose name has become synonymous with Madonna’s failed charitable efforts in the Western media. Lesson learned in a tiny African country that must have been thrilled to be Madonna’s choice for the beneficiary of her largess: Beware of pop stars bearing gifts.