Explainer: The less funny side of Comic Relief

This is why people are calling the charity problematic

13th March 2019

This Friday is Red Nose Day, a charity event (no doubt you already know the drill) where kids across the UK wear red noses and big BBC shows do celebrity specials. Some old inoffensive comedy characters will be making a return (this year, Steve Coogan is completing the process of actually becoming Alan Partridge, and we’ve finally got that Four Weddings and a Funeral sequel), and we’ll see how another celebrity got on in a poverty-stricken place somewhere in Africa, reporting on how terrible it all is over there. They’ll probably cry a bit. Not too much. Not messy crying. Just enough to let us know how affecting and eye-opening it’s all been for them.

This last bit in particular has caused a bit of a stir this year, however. A film on poverty in Uganda by Stacey Dooley came under fire on Twitter by Labour MP David Lammy who called it just another example of a narrative of white saviours that perpetuates negative and unhelpful stereotypes about African nations. And this isn’t the only reason Comic Relief has been criticised recently. In January, it was revealed a range of Spice Girls t-shirts in aid of Comic Relief had been manufactured in a sweatshop in Bangladesh that pays workers 35p an hour. All this has raised questions over whether Comic Relief is actually pretty problematic and whether it’s just “poverty porn”.

Poverty porn

Poverty porn is exploitation of the poor in order to gain attention or sympathy for a cause. It’s easy to criticise a celebrity or a normal person using poverty to improve their own personal image – think of those people you probably have on your Instagram who went off to build an orphanage in Uganda or somewhere for their gap year and posted about how “life-changing” it all was. But it’s when poverty porn is used by charities, it gets a bit more controversial.

Lammy has been arguing for years that although Comic Relief is a charity that’s aiming to get money out to people who live in terrible conditions, it’s ended up portraying a grossly stereotypical image of the whole of Africa as a poverty-stricken, malaria ridden hell dependent on the help of predominantly white, western countries.

This has perpetuated some really harmful racial stereotypes, with all Africans seemingly portrayed either as corrupt or starving

Lammy argues that it completely fails to give a voice to the people actually living in these places, instead just painting them as perpetual silent victims, constantly in need of aid from white people. This, he asserts, has perpetuated some really harmful racial stereotypes, with all Africans seemingly portrayed either as corrupt or starving. It is a viewpoint that has completely ignored the fact there’s been some real progress throughout the continent, with both life expectancies and GDP up in many of the largest sub-Saharan nations. Just as importantly, he argues the images of rich, white people going over to bring aid to these places, and illustrate their problems for us, can more often than not ignore the role of western countries in the causes of poverty, and detract from calls for real change.

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All this provoked a huge row on Twitter in the last few weeks. Stacey Dooley is, after all, not a pop star like Ed Sheeran, whose visit to Liberia in 2015 provoked similar controversy. On the contrary, she’s a filmmaker who has spent much of her career investigating different forms of poverty and exploitation; from child labour and sex work, to the environmental impact of the fashion trade.

Dooley has suggested the only reason she’d gotten this reaction was because she is white, suggesting that if the whole issue was one of racial stereotypes surrounding white people “saving” black people, then Lammy should go visit these places himself. But for Lammy, it’s this very attitude of just having celebrities go over to deprived countries with their film crews that is the problem.

In addition, it’s precisely the imperialistic “world police” mindset that caused much of these countries’ problems in the first place. The international market is stacked against developing nations, while many corporations have directly profited or contributed to corruption and poverty. And yet, this is something Comic Relief never talks about.

As a result, few of us in Britain are aware of this either. Instead, we are constantly fed the same kinds of images of African countries every single year, images which directly inform many people’s notions of what “Africa” is like — a single entity (not 54 separate countries) that is poor because of bad governments or because “nothing ever grows”.

The greater good?

Of course, these sorts of criticisms have been chucked at Comic Relief ever since it started back in the 1980s. The sight of hundreds of rich pampered celebrities coming together for stuff like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has always struck some people as nauseating and self-serving, with artists like Lily Allen among those who’ve stayed out of it because they found it “smug” and patronising towards people living in poverty. However, it gets the positive reaction it aims for, becoming Christmas number one every single year there’s been a new version released. The original raised as much as £5m to go to aid the famine that struck Ethiopia in the mid-eighties and subsequent versions have been similarly successful.

Comic Relief had, after the reaction to Ed Sheeran’s film in 2015, claimed it wanted to move away from this tendency towards poverty porn and actually give people in need a voice. Comic Relief 2017 may have opened its video segments with narrated introductions by David Tennant, but they mostly focused on letting people in need tell their own stories. And yet, raising £38m that night, the 2017 campaign was its lowest total in a decade.

Many have argued that even if it does perpetuate unpleasant stereotypes, Comic Relief is reliant on the presence of celebrities when it comes to raising money and satisfying its various corporate partners. Indeed, that’s its main draw. You only need to compare the amounts raised for Comic Relief, and the charities it works on behalf of, with what other charities raise to see the difference.

A worthy cause?

The issue of sweatshops and fast fashion that Stacey Dooley has made a name for herself reporting on, is also under the spotlight for the wrong reasons when it comes to Comic Relief merchandise. Not only have workers in Bangladesh (the majority of whom tend to be women) been working 16 hours a day on slave wages, but many have complained of being abused and harassed and, after some attempted to unionise to improve conditions, 100 of them were dismissed.

Comic Relief claimed that Represent, the retailer which had been commissioned to produce the shirts, had changed manufacturers without the charity’s knowledge, and the Spice Girls, who were promoting the shirts, have since called on it to donate all profits to campaigns in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, if you bought one of the shirts, you can get a refund (no word yet on whether the workers will be getting any of that). However, even if this was an honest mistake by Comic Relief, the fact that it could happen at all raises serious questions about how much the charity scrutinises its suppliers.

This also isn’t the first time it has been called out for practices that would seem to fly in the face of its mission statement. It was revealed, back in 2013, Comic Relief had been making various investments which appeared to contradict its own stated aims.

BBC Panorama discovered the charity had been investing thousands in both the alcohol and tobacco industries, despite campaigns against both tuberculosis and alcohol misuse. Perhaps most seriously,it had also invested £630,000 in the weapons firm BAE, prompting comedian and friend of The Overtake Frankie Boyle to state he’d happily do a routine for that year’s Red Nose Day “if paid in guns”.

Considering its supposed commitments to aiding countries wracked by conflict, especially in places like the Congo which has seen as much loss of life as the Second World War, this seems openly two faced. Meanwhile, Save the Children, which Comic Relief works on behalf of, was accused of censoring criticism of the energy industry and quashing campaigns against rising energy prices in order to lose the support of the big energy firms.

A backlash?

This dodgy record raises questions of whether such revelations might actually affect the popularity of Comic Relief and other big charity events. Will people be so willing to give money if they can no longer be as sure of where that money goes, or whether it makes a difference?

Recent history has demonstrated that publicity like this can badly affect charities, even when it’s just been isolated cases as these sweatshop-produced shirts appear to be.

Back in June, Oxfam was hit by scandal when it was revealed that some of their workers in Haiti had been sexually exploiting earthquake survivors. Not only this, but it was revealed that Oxfam had attempted to cover this up. Grooming and exploitation would, on its own, simply have been a horrendous criminal act, but the attempted cover-up caused a serious loss of trust in the organisation as a whole.

Lenny Henry was fiercely critical of the Panorama programme that exposed the investments they’d been making back in 2013, saying it endangered a charity that does genuinely do good work

The charity lost as many as 7,000 of its regular donors. As a result, its chief executive, Mark Goldring, stepped down and Oxfam was forced to make £16m worth of cuts both to jobs and, perhaps most importantly, other relief programmes. These were programmes which had nothing to do with the one in Haiti and which had actually been working to help people. According to Labour MP Clare Short, the reaction was as if everyone within Oxfam was culpable, something she felt was completely out of proportion. It goes to show just how much something like this can tarnish a charity in the eyes of the public.

The possibility that a similar backlash could happen to Comic Relief has almost certainly caused it great concern. Lenny Henry was fiercely critical of the Panorama programme that exposed the investments they’d been making back in 2013, saying it endangered a charity that does genuinely do good work.

Following the more recent debates, he’s been joined by numerous others who have asserted that, regardless of what mistakes it’s made in trying to drum up more money, this is money that has made a huge difference to the lives of many of the poorest and most vulnerable across the world.

It’s hard to imagine that many of the people around the world currently facing starvation will be all that bothered if the money raised means they get clean drinking water and essential medical supplies

Since 1985, Comic Relief has invested more than £1bn in providing developing countries with medicines, give shelter to asylum seekers and help the homeless in our own country. It has also, despite Lammy’s criticisms about avoiding any real structural changes, made some really interesting proposals for genuine political change, in the face of right-wingers.

For example, the charity has spent years calling for a Robin Hood Tax which would essentially do what it says on the tin and take from the rich to give to the poor, through a tax on transactions between banks to put towards tackling poverty and climate change. Criticisms of white saviour narratives might be well founded, it’s argued, but it’s also hard to imagine that many of the people around the world currently facing starvation will be all that bothered if the money raised means they get clean drinking water and essential medical supplies.

Change

Charities like Comic Relief might not be perfect. But, with a government that is cutting foreign aid, they do make a vital difference to many people.

Most of the failings that have been levelled at Comic Relief are, in many ways, failings with society as a whole rather than just with one organisation. The representations of Africa in charity appeals may be heavily distorted and tied up with narratives of white saviours but this is evidently what gets the most donations.

This, of course, is not an excuse for these practices. Just because society is messed up, we shouldn’t stop striving for better. After the controversy with Ed Sheeran, Comic Relief pledged to focus more on the actual people involved, so that we can avoid perpetuating this white saviour narrative and give those in need a voice. It will remain to be seen whether or not it holds to this pledge this year.

Just as there are ways to depict poverty and need without using celebrities, there are ways to use celebrities to raise money that aren’t insensitive.

More than anything, David Lammy is absolutely right in stating that it’s not enough to just get people’s sympathy. We need to be getting angry over just what goes on. The role of corporations and other organisations like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund in creating poverty is often largely unknown by the general public and, if Comic Relief wishes to be seen as genuinely out to make a difference, it needs to start tackling causes as well as symptoms. Highlighting structural power imbalances might be less entertaining but it’s so much more important.

13th March 2019