The recent Twitter spat between MP David Lammy and journalist Stacey Dooley has highlighted just how uncomfortable the UK’s relationship with charity in Africa is.
Dooley posted an image of herself and a Ugandan child on her Instagram, where she was filming for Comic Relief; Lammy then commented on Twitter that “the world does not need any more white saviours”. The exchange and the response to it has brought to the fore the problematic narrative surrounding charitable giving from the global north to the global south, and Lammy is absolutely right to continue to criticise this. Though Comic Relief and charities like it have been hugely successful in their fundraising over the years, the way that fundraising is achieved has arguably hindered the plight of the African nations in receipt of it, and promoted negative stereotypes about the people that live there.
Firstly, appeals like Comic Relief often promote the idea of the relationship between UK-Africa as being that of a Dickensian benefactor and dependent; the only way that these people could possibly survive is through your kind donations. This is not just patronising but also completely inaccurate. Comic Relief does good work, but it is not just British charity that is supporting development work in countries like Uganda. Local development agencies and charities exist too, and it is locals and local experts who are most intimately involved with the work being done. Completely ignoring this, and inserting a white celebrity into any African town to comment on how awful it all is for the children there, denies Africans of agency and smacks of arrogance.
A particularly stomach-churning example of our twisted perceptions of Africa is the comments cited in the Sun’s article covering the Lammy-Dooley controversy. One Twitter user, angry that Dooley and Comic Relief had been criticised, refused to donate money to Comic Relief this year and sniped that African countries should not ‘bite the hand that feeds [them]’. It is just beyond condescending to tell African nations to shut up and receive aid politely: words and images are important, and recipients of aid deserve dignity.
Another problem with parachuting in ‘white saviours’ for charity appeals is that these appeals simplify the complex social and economic issues in the countries they visit to a point that is just unhelpful. Nowhere in this Ed Sheeran Comic Relief video in Liberia is trade discussed, or regional conflict considered. Rather, the only solution to African poverty offered is charity. Indeed, its tone was so unhelpful that it received a ‘rusty radiator award’ from awareness campaign Radi-Aid. I understand that it’s hard to evoke sympathy and donations by highlighting the intricacies of international trade, and as Gaby Hinsliffe puts it , Comic Relief does have to get more than ‘millennial bums on sofas’. But whilst poverty porn plus emotive celebrity commentaries is a winning formula for fundraising, Comic Relief also has a responsibility to raise awareness accurately.
David Lammy’s comments, though incendiary, are completely right. For too long we have allowed African poverty and charity to be stereotyped. Charity is important, and the history of white saviour-ism doesn’t make aid morally irrelevant. But we need to do it right, minus all the condescension.
Words by Kate Newby