Following a growing backlash against Comic Relief’s long-running practice of sending (usually white) celebrities to Africa to make heart-wrenching films about poverty, the development charity has endeavoured to instead start working with local filmmakers. The charity will also be moving away from depicting Africa using images of people experiencing extreme illness or malnourishment.
For co-founder Sir Lenny Henry, it’s a welcome move. “I think it's about time," he told BBC news. "And it's not to say that the films that have been made in the past weren't extraordinary and didn't have a huge effect. But it's time for young black and brown film-makers to take charge and say, 'I want to tell you my story.’”
Referring to the decision to stop using images of illness and starvation, he said: “There are other ways to elicit sympathy – and maybe we'd been pushing on the same button for too long.”
The tide has been turning on this genre of fundraising for a while. Last year, Comic Relief was met with criticism when it sent TV presenter Stacey Dooley to visit a neonatal clinic in Uganda. Labour MP David Lammy accused the programme of perpetuating “tired and unhelpful stereotypes”, adding, “The world does not need any more white saviours.” He suggested that the images of Stacey Dooley posing with children evoked “a colonial image of a white, beautiful heroine holding a black child, with no agency, no parents in sight”.
Two years previously, Ed Sheeran was given a sarcastic Rusty Radiator award for “most offensive and stereotypical fundraising video of the year” after filming with the charity in Liberia, in footage described by Radi-Aid (an annual campaign that satirises reductive and clichéd development fundraising videos) as “literally poverty tourism”.
Writing in VICE last year, journalist Jason Okundaye argued: “Too many people still believe in the stock imagery of corrupt, disease-ridden, war-ravaged Africa, pushed by organisations such as Comic Relief and your favourite social media philanthropists; the underlying message being that helpless Africans should be grateful for the generosity of the western world.”
Today, Lewis Ryder-Jones, deputy chief executive at Scotland’s International Development Alliance, told VICE News over email: “We welcome this announcement from Comic Relief. The ‘white-saviour’ narrative in our sector has for too long been perpetuated by international appeals led by celebrities parachuted in to far flung locations to highlight poverty and deprivation experienced by people elsewhere. This kind of appeal – one that evokes an emotional response in UK audiences – only serves to reinforce false perceptions that people and communities lack agency in their own development trajectory, something which is both inaccurate and steeped in neo-colonialism.”
He added: “Use of local photographers and filmmakers to tell the stories of why global development funding is necessary is extremely important. It can help propel a more accurate overarching narrative that global development works when it is led by the needs and aspirations of people who face very real challenges stemming from grave global inequality. Above all, this move demonstrates that donors like Comic Relief are moving towards a more progressive understanding of how and why we must finance sustainable development across the world.”