Saturday, 7 March 2015

30 Years of 'Comic' Relief

[DISCLAIMER: donating to charity is an extremely important part of my life, I do agree with giving money to reputable charities. There is clearly a need for aid and charitable donations to African and other third world countries. My concern is with Comic Relief as an organisation]

It's that time of the year again. Comic Relief has already begun to creep up on television and radio.  But the discussions in the media of the 'impoverishment' and 'desperation' in Africa has already left me feeling angry. Every year the BBC presents a television comedy marathon to raise money for Comic Relief and its sister charity Sport Relief. Yet the juxtaposition of glamour and destitution always seems to leave a bitter taste. Amongst all the fun and glitter, there are some fundamental problems with Comic Relief.

The almost pornographic images and descriptions of severely malnourished children scavenging for food, while mothers carry buckets of water across scorched desert, seem to align the whole of the African continent with the dated homogeneous image of Africa as 'primitive' and 'poor'. The portrayal of African people as less fortunate and less privileged than the British viewer, creates a dangerous opposition between Britons and Africans. The Briton being the privileged 'donor' and the African being the less privileged 'receiver', placing the latter in a subordinate position of dependence upon Western donors.

Secondly, the very fact that Comic Relief sends celebrity personalities to impoverished African countries is a problem in itself. Are we only interested in watching celebrities travel to Africa  because we are more interested in watching the reaction of the familiar face? Overall, the celebrities reporting on the poverty and famine in the continent are ignorant of the complexity of cultures, languages and politics within the countries that Comic Relief targets. Moreover, it often feels as if the tears of the celebrity are treated with more significance than the situation they are addressing.

Regardless of the images and celebrities used by Comic Relief, there is also the conflict between Comic Relief's mission statements and their involvement in arms, tobacco and alcohol. Despite claiming to 'support those affected by conflict', in 2009 Comic Relief invested £630,000 in shares in weapons firm BAE Systems. Additionally, according to the BBC, Comic Relief also aims to fight tuberculosis alongside Target TB. Yet, while raising funds in 2009, nearly £3m worth of donations were invested in shares in tobacco companies. Similarly, in 2009, Comic Relief invested £300,000 in Diageo, a multinational alcoholic beverage company.

Comic Relief is an opportunity for viewers to spontaneously and compulsively give money to the needy, without research into the individuals that benefit from donations. As Peter Popham writes elsewhere, many nations give money to causes that have sentimental, historical, religious or cultural connections. Yet, we, as a nation, seem to give our money thoughtlessly to whoever tugs at our heart strings the hardest.

Food for thought: 

Thirty years after its establishment, Comic Relief is still tackling famine and poverty across the African continent, but how much poverty has been alleviated in Africa since 1985? And, how much poverty has been created in countries by weapons made by manufacturers supported by Comic Relief?

Why are we comfortable donating our money to an organisation that has associations with arms firms, but are not willing to make meaningful changes to our lifestyles or foreign policy, to help alleviate poverty in third world countries?

Is Comic Relief a convenient way to rid a guilty conscience? Because we have no desire to look into the political histories of the countries we want to support (or indeed the legacy of our own colonial history in Africa). Behind our generosity there seems to be an incredibly stubborn ignorance to look further and unfortunately, Comic Relief seems to be one of the best examples of this.


For more information:

Dismantling Development, 'Comic Relief'

Declan Lawn, The BBC, 'Comic Relief money invested in arms and tobacco shares'

Peter Popham, The Indepedent, 'Do we need Comic Relief?'

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