The recent controversy over Madonna's involvement with education in Malawi is an example of why celebrities should stay away from development work, says Canadian philanthropist Stephen Lewis.

Lewis, the former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and board chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, was commenting on the pop singer's cancellation of plans for an all-girls school in the African country. The decision has left one Malawian community feeling that it was manipulated by a wealthy star.

"I think fundamentally that celebrities should stay out of development," Lewis said in an interview with CBC Radio's Q cultural affairs show on Thursday.

"They don't know enough about it. They don't know how it works. They should leave it to the organizations who have some knowledge of both working with government and with communities on the ground," he said from New York.

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Stephen Lewis says celebrities can be effective in focusing attention on lesser-known causes. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

People in a village near Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, have told reporters they felt betrayed after Madonna abandoned plans to build a $15-million  school there.

"They are angry because, one, they were forced off that land and there was a protracted fight about compensation," Reuters reporter Mabvuto Banda told CBC.

"They were convinced that if Madonna built a school, their lives would improve as well because of the economic benefits the school would bring them … They're so disappointed because [for] two years they wasted their time and energy."

'I think she did [the project] in good faith initially, although I'm uncomfortable about the way they turned the so-called academy into the hands of people who are obviously incompetent or greedy or untrustworthy'— Stephen Lewis

Banda says the people believe they've been manipulated by a star who wanted to look good in the media and raise money for her charity.

Madonna changed her mind about the school after the Global Philanthropy Group took a close look at the project and pointed out that $3.8 million US had been spent so far without ground being broken in Lilongwe. Auditors uncovered what were called "outlandish expenses," including high salaries, private cars and golf memberships for charity executives.

Madonna, who has adopted two children from Malawi, decided to cut her losses and, in January, her Raising Malawi charity said it would give money instead to hundreds of comprehensive schools throughout the country.

But the star was criticized again last week when staff members for the school project who were fired filed a lawsuit over lost wages, unfair dismissal and non-payment of benefits.

"I think she did [the project] in good faith initially," Lewis said, "although I'm uncomfortable about the way they turned the so-called academy into the hands of people who are obviously incompetent or greedy or untrustworthy."

International development full of pitfalls

Very few celebrities can negotiate the pitfalls of international development — though some, such as Alicia Keys and Sean Penn, have a good track record for their hands-on work, Lewis said. The problem is the kind of top-down development in which celebrities try to make decisions about what is right for impoverished countries.

He believes stars are more effective when they take a page from Bono, who has used his celebrity status to focus on issues that might not otherwise be known and to raise money for existing charities.

"I think that is what celebrities should be doing. That is what Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt did when they adopted kids from Namibia. Who had ever heard of Namibia before?" Lewis said.

"But the major international celebrities, whether it is [George] Clooney in Darfur or Sudan or Nicole Kidman talking about women's rights or Emma Thompson — who, for my money, is the best of them all — talking about predicaments in parts of Africa, [what works is] raising profile and raising money and … giving the profile and the money to the organizations that can do the effective work."