It’s Comic Relief Day, so why am I not laughing?

So it’s Comic Relief day here in the UK, the biennial mixture of fun, sentimentality and seriousness as the nation’s comedians attempt to make as open our wallets in response to laughter and tears. Celebrities will undertake ‘challenges’ to bring home to us what poverty looks and feels like. Across the nation’s offices, schools and institutions, people will be doing funny* things for charity. Serious  politicians and other national figures will make fools of themselves for a good cause.

And the money will start rolling in. Comic Relief started as one of the responses to the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s, alongside Band Aid and Live Aid. It was founded by Lenny Henry and Richard Curtis back in 1985, though the first Comic Relief Day (and the big TV show) was in 1988, raising around £15 million that night. The last extravaganza (2015) raised over £78 million, taking the total amount raised during the lifetime of Comic Relief to over £1 billion.

Comic Relief is, then, huge in terms of the money it raises, and the influence it has had in shaping people’s awareness and understanding of problems of poverty across the world. So why does it make me feel like the miserable sod standing in the corner as everyone else has fun, fun, fun? Like the Grinch out to ruin other people’s joy in doing good whilst having a good time?

Partly it is the mawkishness of the actual TV event. I find the contrasts to be jarring: between the comedy; and the serious piece set in a refugee camp or slum, a celebrity surrounded by children, probably crying; the bit that shows how even in adversity people living in poverty can find laughter; and the other bit that tells us what we can learn from them (this isn’t just a one way street you know).

But a dislike of the format isn’t my real objection. It’s not even the fact that underpinning the whole event is the idea that the real reason we should pay attention and care is because a celebrity is telling us to. There is no point in bemoaning the fact that people pay more attention to issues when celebrities front campaigns: it’s not new, nor is it especially surprising (was there someone like me moaning about poets Coleridge and Shelley being poster-children for the sugar boycott in the 1790s as part of the protest against slavery?).

My problem is with the presentation of poverty that events such Comic Relief perpetuate. The narrative of poverty is presented in a simplified way – as it should be. Trying to engage public understanding needs that message to be relatable and understandable. But simple is not the same as simplistic. Comic Relief (and other similar events) reinforce the idea that poverty is a technical issue: send more money, build more water pipes, send more children to school, and problems are solved.

What is almost completely absent is the politics of poverty. But if we want to understand why poverty exists in the places that it does, amongst particular communities rather than others, and why it is so difficult for the poor to extricate themselves from those conditions, we need to confront the politics underlying the causes and consequences of that poverty. We need to ask how the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives in what we buy, what we do and how we do it, are part of the problem. The failure of leading powers to move on climate change is condemning hundreds of millions to an ever-increasing precarious existence. The result of the cultural war on issues such as abortion in the US will cost millions of lives across Africa. Donor-pushed policies on governance reforms, health reforms, etc leave welfare services scarred and unable to meet demands. Decisions on tariffs, protectionist barriers, global tax regimes deny governments in the global South of the resources they need to develop, leaving them reliant on aid (increasingly presented as the benign charity of the global north).

Where politics does appear, it is presented as a problem within the affected countries. Expect lots on corruption tonight, but a lot less on the complicity of UK-based financial institutions in facilitating corruption. Expect even less of a debate as to whether corruption is necessarily bad for development (ie to foster development do you need to tackle corruption; or is corruption reduced as countries develop economically and socially). How much mention of the growing strength of democracy in Africa will there be? Or acknowledgement that, where some presidents have changed constitutions in order to stay in power, this is often with the complicit sanction of rich world governments who see their own strategic interests as best being protected by these rulers?

There are also problems with the perceptions of Africa that are created through such events. In the eyes of many British people, Africa is synonymous with poverty, violence and despair (for a great article on the ways in which anti-poverty campaigns can serve to associate entire regions with poverty, see Graham Harrison’s article, ‘The Africanization of poverty: A retrospective on ‘Make poverty history’ in African Affairs). Comic Relief is not alone in perpetuating these narratives, but it has played an important role. For many people, Africa is a place of dictatorships, corruption, poverty, and violence. Africa will be talked about in undifferentiated ways. And Africans are often presented as the subjects of our generosity and charity, rather than equal partners. How many African voices will we hear tonight, unmediated by a British celebrity? Precious few. And this absence, this silence, will continue to perpetrate ideas about lack of African agency, passivity and reliance on the action of others for their own betterment.

The cause is certainly good. There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of raising money for decent projects that help people to improve their lives and the resources and services to which they have access. The execution may not be my cup of tea, but then it’s not really designed for people whose day-to-day job is grappling with ideas and issues around development. There is nothing wrong with trying to convey challenges, issues and opportunities in simple ways. But there is something wrong with a simplistic message that seeks to write the politics of poverty out of the story; that seeks to avoid blaming us in the rich world for policies and decisions that harm the most vulnerable and marginalised elsewhere; and that yet again ensures the voices speaking out on the experience and consequences of poverty are those of privilege rather than those actually living the lives being described on their behalf, experiencing directly what it means to poor in a thoroughly globally unequal world.

Enjoy it, laugh at the funny bits, send some money. I may not be watching, but I’ll be making my donation. But don’t think money or empathy alone will help. Development is political, and any response  to development and poverty that isn’t political only ensures we will still be having these telethons in 30, 40 and 50 years time. And to think that audiences won’t respond to a more political understanding is to patronise those viewers, almost as much as many Africans (and those from other regions) will feel at the way they will have been represented.

* Some of these will not be funny, especially those that openly describe themselves as ‘wacky’.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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