This week UK Labour MP David Lammy criticised Comic Relief after they released photographs for the 2019 campaign. The criticism was for using Stacey Dooley and other celebrities to reinforce white saviour attitudes and promote poverty tourism. But what does this all mean, and what are the right things to do when it comes to fundraising and supporting development?
What’s all the fuss about white saviour stereotypes in charity appeals
For decades, initiatives like Comic relief, and other telethons have raised billions of pounds, euros and dollars for development initiatives and aid programs across the world. So some people might ask, how can they be doing a bad thing?
The Real Heroes
These days we have increased awareness about reinforcing stereotypes of “poor helpless” groups. The issue is whether Comic Relief viewers are unwittingly supporting the idea that developing nations are unable to address their challenges and advance their societies without a colonial-style benefactor to “save” them from their fate.
Does this mean we shouldn’t be giving to these charities and initiatives? That our money is not needed? Absolutely not! In many cases, the funds raised by these events can support the work of those people on the ground for years to come.
The problem lies with how we present the “heroes” behind this great work. Yes, celebrities can bring attention to an issue and open our eyes to situations we had not considered, but the REAL heroes are those workers on the ground who live and breathe the programs, 24/7, 365 days a year. These are the social workers, healthcare providers, caregivers, teachers, community leaders, engaged family members and all the other tens of hundreds of support workers and locals who work together to improve the lives of those around them.
But these heroes are not the people we know, that we can relate to, that we can care about. They are faceless and voiceless and they are quietly getting on with the real hard work. We don’t know what they are doing, let alone care about how we can help them.
And the desire to help must never be condemned. Our sense of charity, altruism, compassion and social conscience is what makes us a civilized society. It should be celebrated and channelled to address the inequalities of our world and build a better place.
So where does this leave us? How can we do “the right thing”?
For a start, we need to recognize that everyone in this conversation starts with the best intentions. It is no-one’s conscious plan to turn beneficiaries into helpless victims or to claim credit for the work of those who are busting a gut before and after the cameras pack away. It is more likely that this perspective is one that was overlooked when statistics told them that a picture that can bring the audience to tears is one that brings in the greatest donations.
Now that we recognize this, we can’t make villains of those who went before, we can only make sure we have the conversation now and adapt to ensure the best outcomes going forward.
Looking to the future
Maybe we need to take a leaf out of what we have learned from a different type of celebrity show – the reality TV star. Talent shows like X-factor have made a killing out of presenting us the unsung heroes who have overcome adversity to “make it” on the show, without a dry eye in the house. Maybe the future can help us celebrate the real heroes out there, who are getting on with changing the world without our help. Celebrities can approach charity more like Ant and Dec – presenting the stars of the show. The audience can support them with their votes as they call in to pledge their support – though I think we can all agree that we can do away with the judges all together!
So with all this in mind, we want everyone to stay engaged in development, not get turned off by the minefield of ethical issues and the fear that their efforts to do good can be interpreted as negatives. Like becoming a volunteer, it is important to consider all the perspectives, respect and give credit to the real heroes who work tirelessly on important initiatives before and after our short time of walking alongside them on their journeys.
Recognizing that our understanding of the issues that we work on, and the small celebrity roles we have in our lives back at home, gives us the responsibility to bring awareness to the issues and a voice to the real heroes.
We would love to hear your thought on this issue and how you feel we can all be better global citizens?