27 October 2020. The Guardian, UK: Comic Relief will stop sending celebrities such as Ed Sheeran or Stacy Dooley to make promotional films in African countries, after deciding the approach reinforces outdated stereotypes about “white saviours”.
The anti-poverty charity, best known for its Red Nose Day fundraising events, has also said it will no longer portray the continent using images of starving people or critically ill children. Instead it will highlight its work in African nations by promoting stories of ordinary life in the continent captured by local filmmakers and photographers.
The decision follows growing criticism of Comic Relief’s decades-long approach to fundraising, which often saw the charity send a white British celebrity to visit an African nation before filming their emotional reaction at the conditions that they encountered and then asking the public for money.
Last year the Labour MP David Lammy criticised pictures of Dooley holding a young Ugandan boy on a Comic Relief trip, saying the BBC presenter was perpetuating “tired and unhelpful stereotypes”. He said that while he did not doubt Dooley’s good intentions in taking part in the Comic Relief visit to a rural village, the world did not need any more “white saviours”.
Lammy later wrote that the charity’s primetime BBC telethons had convinced the British public that Africa is “one homogeneous blob of pain, suffering and starvation” rather than a continent of many diverse cultures and nations.
Sheeran also came under criticism in 2017 after he visited Liberia and encountered two children sleeping in a boat on a beach, later offering to pay for them to stay in a hotel to give them safe shelter. The video went viral and helped raise millions of pounds but was branded “poverty porn” by a Norwegian aid watchdog, which criticised its implication that only Sheeran, a wealthy white European, was able to help.
Sir Lenny Henry, one of Comic Relief’s co-founders, told the Guardian it was time for the charity to change its approach: “Diversity and inclusion is important both in front and behind the camera. 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.
“I have seen first-hand what it means for African communities to see someone who looks just like them in charge of directing films … Investing in local talent across Africa to tell stories from their communities is great and a much-needed step forward but as always there is more that can be done. The energy and passion for change and new perspectives is there in bucket loads.”
The charity’s chief executive, Ruth Davison, said her organisation had listened to opponents of its traditional approach to fundraising, which the charity has used since it was founded by Henry and Richard Curtis in 1985 to combat famine in Ethiopia.
“Times have changed, audiences has changed, Africa has changed,” Davison said. “There is a formula for how fundraising has been done but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
She said the old approach had raised £1.4bn over the last 35 years but 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. The new aim is to show how many African nations are rapidly developing but are still impacted by rampant inequality.
“What prompts people to give is an emotional connection – that doesn’t have to be pity,” said Davison. “It can be joy, it can be anger, it can be a sense of positivity and hope.”
As part of the new approach on Wednesday the charity will preview three films by filmmakers from across the African continent exploring the impact of mental health issues, climate change and young women escaping forced marriages.
The next Red Nose Day event is due to be held in March 2021, when the changes should become apparent to viewers. Rather than fronting films about work in African nations, white celebrities are likely to be used to provide introductions to films or asked to promote locally made films on their personal social media accounts.
Comic Relief has close links to the BBC and its board was until recently chaired by Tim Davie, the broadcaster’s new director general. It also runs the Sport Relief event and raised additional funds from its one-off Big Night In event during the height of the pandemic lockdown, with spending split between anti-poverty programmes in the UK and internationally.
For the first time Comic Relief is also using its money to directly address racial inequalities in Britain by spending nearly £6m to support Black-led and minority-led organisations across the UK, on the basis that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting Britons from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.