The twitter spat in the run up to this year’s ’Comic Relief TV fundraiser between MP David Lammy and documentary maker and TV personality Stacey Dooley, overshadowed the comedy fest and even led to claims it affected negatively the level of donations. The row concerned photos of Dooley’s Comic Relief trip to Uganda. Images the MP viewed as encouraging ‘tired and unhelpful stereotypes’ and perpetuating a ‘white saviour’ narrative.  Forceful in reply, Dooley herself demanded to know from the MP if the issue was ‘with me being white’, suggesting Lammy might benefit from a spot of engagement on the continent with Comic Relief himself. Other celebs also expressed incredulity that anyone should question her good intentions. But Lammy has been unrepentant stating;
 “Unfortunately, Stacey has run into the same criticism that Ed Sheeran has a few years ago, and Madonna when she went over to Africa… and it’s my job to represent my constituents and be very clear that many ethnic minorities in Britain find this deeply, deeply problematic.”
Adding on BBC 2 Victoria Derbyshire programme“Charity is a good thing, all of us understand that, but how we do charity is important.”
The targeting of Dooley by an MP, who increasingly desperate to keep himself in the media spotlight, may have been unfair given the way she has conducted herself has been no different to a stream of charitable efforts that have depicted Africa as a moral crusade linked to financial assistance and lifestyle consumption. Telethons, pop concerts, and calls for ethical shopping have become part of the mainstream discourse when Africa is mentioned. Neither is she responsible for the narrowness of the debate on development, which has been overrun by notions of ‘sustainability’.
More pertinently, where politicians have failed to act in emergency situations, charities - despite some recent bad press have time and time again been the ones to get things moving.
Nevertheless, the leveraging of monies to support charity work in Africa through the depiction of an impoverished, needy people has been the standard for the sector for too long. Whatever you think of  Lammy, in truth has hit on a sore point. In recent years those images have to sat uneasily with audiences in Africa and in the West.  The charitable impulse is a good one. But the sector needs to have the confidence to engage honest debate about the presentation of Africa, the sources of its economic problems and where its going.
As I’ll explain… this is not a new debate
Back in the 1969 Ken Loach was commissioned to film a documentary on the work of the Save The Children’s fund in the UK and Kenya to celebrate their 50th anniversary.  Loach did exactly what Lammy is asking for, he let the donors and recipients of charity tell their own stories. The film produced was a caustic critique of what he saw as the organisation's patronising attitudes to working-class families at home and the colonial approach he witnessed at a Kenyan school abroad. The film was banned by the charity. But in a subsequent court case ruling agreed that the film must not be destroyed, but instead locked in the vaults at the British Film Institute. Where it resides to this day.
Save the Children gave permission for the film to be screened to the public for the first-time after 42 years as part of the BFI’s Ken Loach season in 2011 and again last year for my charity Voice4Change to discuss as part of the BFI Black and Banned season in 2018. The Film looks a bit prehistoric now, a set of images from a bygone era but the issues underlining it remain relevant to the Lammy-Dooley debate?
Those that live on the continent and those that travel there regularly, know Africa is changing fast. Poverty is being challenged through internal economic growth. Six out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are now on the continent of Africa. Countries like Ethiopia and Kenya are tech savvy - with bright, young populations eager to embrace the digital revolution. The youth of the continent are highly motivated, ambitious and creative. A new narrative is beginning to emerge from Africa and the  West has not caught up.
But let us not over egg the cake, large pockets of poverty exist across Africa is undoubtedly true, as it also exists in the Europe. But Europe unlike Africa, has never had its poverty fetishized to the same degree that it becomes the overriding all-consuming image of an entire continent.
Is it not time charities became more self-critical and reconsider how as Lammy says they do charity’ in Africa?
Well for me the answer yes. Ironically Comic Relief was one of the first to do so. Back in 2011 its own staffers also questioned the validity of its representation of Africans and reinforcement of negative stereotypes.
Comic Relief’s own research noted that for 35% of the Comic Relief audience the charity was the main source of info on Africa, 84% associated Africa with poverty and 695 said most of the stories about Africa were negative (source
In response they launched off-shoot campaign ‘See African Differently’.
An enduring feature of the campaign is a hilarious set of video clips of celebrities satirising the whole ‘celebrity saviour ethos’ beautifully captured by Comedienne Julia Davis, joined by, fellow self-obsessives Richard Wilson, Michael Sheen, James Fox and others. The clips (still available on YouTube) are funny, irreverent and clever in exposing a central dilemma of charitable work aboard.
The See Africa Differently movement also spread to Oxfam – who speaking to the Independents Jonathan Tanner 2013, set out the quandary facing charities in blunt terms:
“ if images of starving babies produce a strong emotional reaction, and therefore strong financial and political support, how are we going to show that we’re making progress? People won’t keep donating if they think nothing has changed - but we know this recipe seems to work.”
The negative connotations that come with the term “Africa” are something that many people working on global poverty have been frustrated by for a while. Anger over poverty porn” and the damaging image it projects have long been the basis of calls for a change of tack.”
(The Independent 3 Jan 2013) ……a sentiment not a million miles away from current discussions
We need to take up the fact that the sector has been acutely aware for some time. Way before the current discourse came into view, of the awkward balancing act charities must perform and the pull coming from BME communities in the UK for a wider vision of life in Africa.
Today the defensive response to Lammy says more about the era we occupy where race, identity and culture have become increasing contested, the idea of white western charities wandering around stricken part of Africa with their film production crews scouting poverty, surrounded by clusters of grateful children, are images unlikely to pass without being interrogated and questioned as to what it is telling us about relationships between the North and South. Doing good work on the ground alone doesn’t cut it anymore. People want to hear from those on the receiving end. They also want to know about progress in Africa away from regular narratives of underdevelopment. And perhaps answers to the most difficult question of all; what’s the end game in terms of ending poverty on the continent. More desperate pictures? or genuine long-term sustainable development?
Kunle Olulode
Voice4change England