Comic Relief will start using African filmmakers. Is that a step forward… or more of a shuffle?

by Sasha Alyson
30 Oct. 2020

Comic Relief, a British charity with close ties to the BBC, announced on 28 Oct. that it would stop sending celebrities to Africa to star in videos with heart-rending portrayals of starving people. Instead, it will engage local filmmakers, thus “ensuring authentic local voices are at the forefront.”(1)

This moves in the right direction, but on closer look, it seems more of a shuffle than a big step.

A month ago, we published a story criticizing U.N. agencies and Western NGOs for routinely hiring Western photographers to depict developing countries. A big reason they do so, as many readers pointed out, is that Western photographers know what the NGO wants: Not a realistic portrait of a country, but photos that will tug donor heartstrings back home.(2)

Our tweet about this story got 98,000 likes and 16,000 retweets. Did that play a role in Comic Relief’s change? I’d like to think so, but maybe that’s just my ego talking. (The story didn’t mention Comic Relief, but did stir up discussion of the exact issue involved in their new policy.) Comic Relief merely said that “times change…”

Whatever the impetus, it’s an improvement. But it has several troubling aspects.

What took so long? Comic Relief was founded in 1985. It continued its “white saviour” approach despite strong criticism from many directions. Why? It worked. Comic Relief says it raised 1.4 billion pounds in those 35 years.

Comic Relief had to be pushed. David Lammy, a member of Parliament in the U.K., sharply criticized the NGO for perpetuating “tired and unhelpful stereotypes.” Comic Relief should have been leading the way to end these stereotypes. Instead, it had to be dragged, and seems to have focused mostly on what would keep its donors happy. The Guardian reported that the charity’s CEO, Ruth Davison, said “the change in tone will help avoid donor fatigue at the idea that decades of giving by the British public has failed to improve African nations.” What if donors get fatigued by hearing those African voices… Will Comic Relief switch back?

Comic Relief never apologized or took responsibility for past campaigns. “Times have changed,” explained Davison. Co-founder Sir Lenny Henry echoed the same line: “Times have changed and society has evolved, and we must evolve too. African people don’t want us to tell their stories for them, what they need is more agency, a platform and partnership.”

Oh? Did African people previously want Comic Relief to tell their stories? Comic Relief made a  years-long mistake. It should apologize, not blame changing times.

The celebrity focus remains. Celebrities bring an audience, and that brings donations. Comic Relief isn’t giving up the benefits of the celebrity connection. Under the new plan, Comic Relief will hire African filmmakers, and the celebrities will support provide introductions to the films or promote them on social media. Three projects have already been announced, focusing on mental health, climate change, and forced marriages.

All worthy topics, but who chose them? Who’s setting priorities?

Celebrities – and charities that use them for fund-raising purposes – tell us they are raising awareness, as well as money. Most of all, however, celebrities are building their fan base. Their agenda calls for feel-good stories – a category that includes “feel pity, donate, then feel great” stories. The three chosen topics will appeal to BBC viewers. The celebrities will benefit by being associated with these causes.

But suppose that the best ways to attack poverty won’t feel good to Western viewers? We needn’t agree on whether this is the case, we merely have to ask: “Should all major causes of poverty be discussed, or shall we focus only about those topics that raise funds when we show them on BBC?” Through their choices, Comic Relief and the BBC shape the conversation – and exclude a lot of topics.

What gets left out? There’s no film asking “Does the West’s high standard of living rely on forced neo-colonial relationships with developing regions?” Perhaps you don’t think it does; but plenty of people do. No matter. That question won’t be addressed. Comic Relief and its celebrities would rather focus on forced marriage, where the bad people are in developing regions – not in London.

Nor is there a film about tax havens – London is one of the largest – which allow Western companies doing business in the South to evade taxes in the countries where they earn their profits. The donations raised by Comic Relief are mere crumbs compared to what tax havens steal from developing countries. But that’s not a feel-good topic. “What prompts people to give is an emotional connection,” explained Davison. Did anyone ever feel an emotional connection to the subject of tax havens? Moreover, any serious challenge to them will create some powerful enemies. Tax havens aren’t on the agenda.

What the global South needs is not more giving, but less taking. That, however, is not compatible with a donor-driven, celebrity-centered approach to aid

Notes and Sources

Top photograph: Kimberley Walsh of Girls Aloud, along with other celebrities, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for Comic Relief’s malaria efforts in Africa, then posed for this picture at a Ugandan school. Celebrities get valuable media exposure from these events – and often the charity even pays their expenses out of its donations. As is always true of karma colonialism, the Westerners in charge get what they wanted, donors feel good, and together they decide it’s good for the recipients, too. Photo by Comic Relief/Getty Images

1. My primary sources for this story were a Guardian report, “Comic Relief stops sending celebrities to African countries,” by Jim Waterson, 27 Oct 2020; and a 28 Oct. press release from Comic Relief.

2. “Why do aid agencies resist using local talent?” on this site.

3. Tax havens are estimated to deprive developing countries of amounts far greater than what they they receive in aid. Exact data isn’t available; it’s deliberately kept secret. “Tax havens are entrenching poverty in developing countries,” by Richard Miller in The Guardian states that “Poorer nations lose three times more money to havens a year than they get in aid.” Two good reports on the subject are How Tax Havens Plunder the Poor (ActionAid) and Honest Accounts (Health Poverty Action). These were published in 2013 and 2014, but I’ve seen no evidence that the situation has changed significantly.

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