Comic Relief and African Visits

Jim Waterson, in the Guardian, reports on the BBC’s decision to stop celebrities going to Africa as it reinforces the ‘white saviour’ image. October 2020.

Ed Sheeran, Comic relief

Comic Relief will stop sending celebrities such as Ed Sheeran or Stacey Dooley to make promotional films in African countries, after deciding the approach reinforces outdated stereotypes about “white saviours”.

The anti-poverty charity, best known for its Red Nose Day fundraising events, has also said it will no longer portray the continent using images of starving people or critically ill children. Instead it will highlight its work in African nations by promoting stories of ordinary life in the continent captured by local filmmakers and photographers.

The decision follows growing criticism of Comic Relief’s decades-long approach to fundraising, which often saw the charity send a white British celebrity to visit an African nation before filming their emotional reaction at the conditions that they encountered and then asking the public for money.

Last year the Labour MP David Lammy criticised pictures of Dooley holding a young Ugandan boy on a Comic Relief trip, saying the BBC presenter was perpetuating “tired and unhelpful stereotypes”. He said that while he did not doubt Dooley’s good intentions in taking part in the Comic Relief visit to a rural village, the world did not need any more “white saviours”.Lammy later wrote that the charity’s primetime BBC telethons had convinced the British public that Africa is “one homogeneous blob of pain, suffering and starvation” rather than a continent of many diverse cultures and nations.

Sheeran also came under criticism in 2017 after he visited Liberia and encountered two children sleeping in a boat on a beach, later offering to pay for them to stay in a hotel to give them safe shelter. The video went viral and helped raise millions of pounds but was branded “poverty porn” by a Norwegian aid watchdog, which criticised its implication that only Sheeran, a wealthy white European, was able to help.

Sir Lenny Henry, one of Comic Relief’s co-founders, told the Guardian it was time for the charity to change its approach: “Diversity and inclusion is important both in front and behind the camera. Times have changed and society has evolved, and we must evolve too. African people don’t want us to tell their stories for them, what they need is more agency, a platform and partnership.

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