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Comic Relief’s White Saviours: it’s not just the Whiteness, but also the Saviour part

March 23, 2018

The Guardian newspaper reported today that Comic Relief is moving away from ‘White Saviours’ in its fundraising. That’s great, and responds to long-standing criticism by Afua Hirsch and others. But if this simply means removing domestic celebrities (whether white, or not) from Comic Relief’s and Sports Relief’s TV marathons, that does not deal with the underlying problem. The problem with the white saviour trope is not just the white bit, it’s also the saviour part.

Liz Warner, Comic Relief’s CEO, says in the article that this is just the start of a process of change. That’s very welcome. So here are three other suggestions she might consider, with regards Comic Relief’s Africa programmes.

1. Transforming society, not just individuals. Ensure she is supporting the kinds of change which are transformational not just for the individuals and communities helped by Comic Relief’s money, but for their wider society. This means among other things, getting to grips with some of the underlying issues which help obstruct progress, including pernicious cultural and governance behaviours, and the systems that underlie them. This probably means funding edgy advocacy whose proponents take a personal risk to achieve change, because they are going against the norms and often against those in power, whether locally or nationally. It probably means finding creative ways to support and fund agitprop activists who aren’t sitting in the kinds of NGOs of which western donors are so fond. It probably means accepting that Comic Relief will get into trouble because they support those not liked by the status quo; or who can’t account perfectly for all the funding they’ve received.

2. Join with campaigners across Africa and in the UK who are fighting for some of the external changes needed to reduce poverty. These changes are well known, as they have been named and listed many times over past decades, so I won’t do so again. A good starting point is the list contained in Owen Barder’s October 2016 blog, where he talks about bringing developing countries into discussions about international taxation norms, improving transparency within the natural resources business sector, removing tariffs, doing more to reduce money laundering in places like the UK, reforming the UN, reducing arms sales, and many other ways that UK citizens and their government can change what they do, to make the enabling global environment more propitious for poverty eradication in Africa.

3. Stop making us cry, and bring more integrity to the story you tell us. Stop sending the message to British TV viewers, on Red Nose Day or Sport Relief Day, that they can be the saviours of poor people overseas, by giving you their money. This is where the saviour problem lies: not in using celebrities as spokespeople, because TV viewers aren’t stupid enough to think that Ed Sheeran is personally a saviour of poor Africans. What they do think, because this is what Comic Relief’s TV marathons tell them implicitly, is ‘if I send money to Comic Relief, I will be saving the poor people on the TV, whose terrible plight right now is making me cry. Once I’ve sent my money, the problem will go away and I won’t need to cry’.

While I understand that making people cry is an effective tactic for getting people to open their wallets, I question whether it is ethical to leave it at that. In this era of globalised information flow and communication, Comic Relief – along with all other overseas charities who do public fundraising – surely have a responsibility to educate us all about how poverty is sustained in other parts of the world and what – beyond projects – can be done about it, even without reaching for our cheque books and credit cards.

The great advantage for Comic Relief is that they have access to the talent which can, presumably, find clever, perhaps satirical ways to get this message across. Imagine a skit by Armando Iannucci, for example, about how money continues to be laundered by the City and what can be done about that; or about how British citizens are contributing to poverty abroad by their behaviours and their low expectations of their government, and what can be done about that?


Many congratulations to Liz Warner on taking the risk she is taking. Good luck in your fundraising through Sport Relief this weekend, and more importantly, in the journey of change you say you are leading Comic Relief along.

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