Friday, April 1, 2005

Charity presents one-dimensional view of Africa

I am now an official survivor of the unmitigated blitzkrieg people in the UK call Red Nose Day. I suffered the relentless onslaught of weeping celebrities begging me to part with my cash to help starved Africans. I just managed to stomach the general public going berserk for a day, colouring their hair red and jamming 17 fat cross-dressers into a Mini Cooper, all in the name of charity.

But, despite the absurdity of it, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day works. The charity extravaganza and telethon that happens every two years have raised more than £337-million since 1985, with 60% going to causes in Africa. That said, there is also something about this feel-good frenzy and media juggernaut that is Red Nose Day that makes me feel just a little uncomfortable. Am I the only one who feels the bitter irony of engaging in a pie-eating contest to raise money for the starving?

I do not want to be a party pooper or discourage philanthropy, but how much thought is really going into this type of giving? I have no doubt that those working at Comic Relief have a sophisticated strategy for selecting projects and sustaining them. Their Website convincingly describes the long-term impact the money makes. But is there similar strategic thinking when it comes to the general public?

The media machine behind Comic Relief, although successful at getting donations and sensitising the public to the plight of individuals in dreadful circumstances, also distances us from the bigger picture. The average public donor is sold a package, complete with red nose, hair gel and funny fundraising ideas, with no thinking required whatsoever. The message is simple: watch the TV insert about the plight of Africans, see what a difference Comic Relief makes, feel emotionally moved, dial a number and, faster than you could order a pizza, your money has bought a meal for a starving child.

You would expect, after 20 years, the campaign message to be a little more sophisticated. I do not want to take a cheap shot at Comic Relief or those millions of generous people out there. I also recognise the pragmatic argument that if a zany media campaign is needed to bring in the money then so be it. But there are other issues to consider.

In an effort to present a snappy media message, there is a tendency to paint Africa as an amorphous mass. It really doesn’t matter if the project being supported is in Sudan or Sierra Leone. It is all Africa – and it needs help. Media-wise, this works, but it leaves the UK public with a very one-dimensional view of Africa. It acontextualises why poverty and conflict came about it the first place. It lets governments off the hook and writes multinational companies out of the picture.

I know that Comic Relief tries to tackle this in its own way. Its educational materials for schools deal with questions of debt and fair trade. It encourages students to take a stand and write to MPs. But, sadly, this is not the public face of Comic Relief. It is a social indictment that charity has to be funky to get a public response.

Disturbingly the slick celebrity-driven marketing does not challenge the public to think about the root causes of poverty and do something more substantial than dipping into their pockets every two years.

Surely the campaign should include a focus on the need for fundamental political change to alleviate poverty and not just the importance of making an individual difference.

Comic Relief should be commended for all it has done and the world would be a better place if there was a red nose under every bed, but I only wish the whole thing was just a little more political and a lot more challenging.

To find out more on Comic Relief visit http://www.comicrelief.com/

Copyright Brandon Hamber, March 2005. "Look South" Column: an edited version of this article was published on Polity on 25 March 2005.