Comic Relief comms must drop the 'poverty porn' and focus on empowerment

For years when I've challenged the portrayal of Africans and Asians by international development charities the response has been, to paraphrase Stacey Dooley's tweet to David Lammy MP, "we're doing something, you're not, so there".

Pic: Scott Reeve Photography
Pic: Scott Reeve Photography

My contempt for the way international development charities have portrayed people from the global south is what led me to start thinking about diversity in PR and comms.

The sector, shockingly un-diverse like the Comic Relief management team, have created a funding model heavily reliant on portraying us as weak, passive, helpless characters in need of saving. They feed donors pictures of poor babies; hungry, passive children; pregnant, helpless women; and elderly men - yet never strapping young men or feisty, strong young women as if neither exists in any country in the continent.

And, despite the many bustling cities in Africa hosting music festivals; churning out tech startups; launching luxury developments; spoiled with beautiful beaches; and brimming with five-star hotels; international development charities would have you believe the continent is one big village struggling to raise a baby, with everyone always kilometres away from running water. (FYI, I was born in Dar es Salaam and the only time I didn’t have access to running water and a flushing toilet was in Glastonbury in 2015).

They peddle poverty porn and have been doing so for years. They’ve pushed a skewed narrative of the continent and its people, and deliberately so.

Comic Relief CEO Liz Warner’s background was TV production. She’s never worked for an NGO or had a long career in international development. But she knows how to put on a good show; crucial to draw in risk-averse mainstream brands like Sainsbury’s and apolitical celebs like Little Mix. Last year, she made a bold announcement: there would be no more poverty porn and no more 'white saviours'.

This year, following Lammy’s comments, Comic Relief’s statement was a reminder of how Africans are merely props for the big TV show: not a single word in the statement referred to the young Ugandan child in Dooley’s picture. Even as Twitter rushed to defend Dooley, I saw no single reference to the child.

I wonder how his parents would feel knowing their son’s image is used on the other side of the world as a symbol of poverty?

And, of course, there was the slightly disingenuous reference to "projects the British public have generously funded" when a simple glance of Comic Relief’s website reveals millions of funding received from other sources, including the UK government and multinationals.

But Comic Relief knew what they were doing with that statement and Twitter responded accordingly with accusations of "ungrateful" and "biting the hand that feeds".

The tweeters quick to add "I won’t be giving now" and Comic Relief’s failure to acknowledge the child in the statement but reference "award-winning" Dooley were reminders that we Africans are passive pawns in poverty porn - not to speak, challenge or dare show any offence. We should be grateful.

If Comic Relief, essentially a grant-giving body, was keen to show impact of its work, why do they not send celebs to meet the suits at the Geneva headquarters of Global Fund to fight Aids, TB and Malaria? The organisation received the highest single award (more than double compared to the runner-up) of £8m of Comic Relief funding in 2016 (it got a second £8m in 2018 – making it the organisation awarded the most in single grants and at £16m in total, the biggest recipient of Comic Relief funding internationally). So wouldn’t it be more accurate to film the people in Switzerland?

Comic Relief’s work has long been lazy and predictable – it took the baton straight out of Live Aid’s hand and 30 years later it’s still running with it.

I think about the incredible work disability charities and the likes of Rob Dyson have done over the years to empower the people they work with. I think about the cool Paralympics ads on Channel 4 in 2012 set to a hip-hop soundtrack and I know it is possible to do great work, raise funds and empower the people you work with.

My hope is we move away from the "is Stacey Dooley a white saviour?" clickbait debate, to a deeper conversation about how charity communications professionals – including Comic Relief – can responsibly portray the people they work with, and the countries they work in, in the global south.

But this African isn’t holding her breath.

Elizabeth Bananuka is a communications consultant and founder of BME PR Pros

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