Comic Relief and the celebrity curating of African poverty

A ticklish subject

Sometimes a public statement is intriguing because it communicates a fairly moderate view but still seems to stir up controversy. This is the case with David Lammy’s comments on Stacey Dooley’s posting an image of her holding a Ugandan child above the text ‘OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED’ (sic). He says that  ‘the image is a perpetual image of people who are impoverished, who need white celebrities.’ But, this criticism of money-raising imagery based in white saviours and African children has been generally accepted by the charity development sector for decades, leading some to adopt codes of good practice in how they generate imagery of the distant poor. Go into any development campaign planning meeting, say ‘positive images’, and all you will get are affirming nods.

So, the question is, why did Comic Relief and Stacey Dooley find it necessary to challenge and refute Lamy’s fairly pedestrian comments with such vigour? To some degree that’s social media for you: a realm in which image protection and virtue signalling counts for a great deal. But, there is also something else at work which is more specific to Comic Relief: the deployment of celebrity in campaigns.

Comic Relief is rather different to the mainstream development charity sector. It is fundamentally a vehicle for celebrity fundraising and activism. Its offices are full of images of the rich and famous. Comic Relief was set up by Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry precisely to bring celebrities in the great cause of charitable philanthropy. It is, effectively, an agency for celebrity humanitarianism. It uses money raised to fund projects but it had no capacity to manage or execute projects itself.

For this reason, Comic Relief received Lammy’s comments as a direct attack on its brand value. If this sounds cynical, bear in mind that charities are very protective of their brand which is seen as vital to the worth of their organisations and a key driver of fundraising success. Brand management is at the heart of development charity, and for Comic Relief, that brand is constructed through celebrity imagery to a far greater degree than other development charities.


How does this make you feel?

Much of the debate around Lammy’s comments reveal how interwoven social media, celebrity, and moral discourse can become. Consider the back-and-forth on Twitter and the various social media commentaries. They are readily inculcated into a familiar discourse about celebrity more generally that pervades social media. This discourse has the following distinct characteristics which generate a mechanism for almost all of the discussion therein. It goes like this: a celebrity makes a public appearance or statement on some political issue – the appearance/statement provokes dissenting views on the issue – the discussion elides from the issue to the personal motivation, virtue, and predispositions of the celebrity – the outcome of the discussion is principally to consolidate the celebrity status of the rich and famous person who kicked the whole thing off. A couple of illustrations.

In another moment of public contention relating to celebrities in Africa, I set aside time in a seminar for students to discuss Madonna’s Malawi child adoption. I was prepped to bring out discussions about her avoidance of international procedures for adoption, the power she exercised through her wealth and donations to Malawi’s schools, or the persistence of the ‘white saviour’ trope. Instead, students wanted to discuss Madonna’s motivations, and whether she had acted honestly, virtuously, mistakenly, and so on. In the Stacey Dooley example, much of the discussion is about the personal context for her Instagram post, her seriousness as a journalist and documentary maker, and her own motivations. This is what celebrity does: it generates shallow discussions about the political issues that they connect to by making it ‘all about me’ rather than getting to the marrow of a bone of political contention.

Celebrities, then, act as a kind of emotional sovereign, in which their feelings matter most – not just because they are famous but because a kind of mystical connection is implicitly posited in which the emotions of the celebrity stand in for the facts and logic of a political argument. If Stacey had been talking to the father of the child, had made documentaries about powerless people around the world, had met with nurses and others during the same trip… well then somehow that’s OK.

The public labour of the celebrity is, then, affective. In relation to campaigns on behalf of the distant poor, it relegates the agency or detail of those lives in poverty to an ancillary place. As ever, arch-Afro-celeb Bono (sic) encapsulates this in one of his many public addresses: ‘I represent a lot of [African] people who have no voice at all… They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s clearly cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.’ Here we see a mixture of vainglory, coy self-deprecation, and humour: classic celeb affectation. But, note, this is about Bono first and foremost.


The Great British Philanthro-fest

Throughout Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day bienniels, we see reportage of African poverty through the eyes of celebrities who narrate their experiences soaked emotional responsiveness. Red Nose Day really isn’t over until the celebrity weeps. Celeb encounters with poverty do not raise questions about the poor, they simply ask: how does this make you feel? And, if the celebrity does his or her job, their emotions will be your affect. And – so the logic goes – your affective empathy will motivate you to donate. If so, it is difficult to know how much of that emotional relating is a connection to the distant poor and how much is a connection to the upset celebrity.

For Comic Relief, Red Nose Day is a great fundraising event articulated through reportage from their project areas relayed through a parade of celebrities. This has been going on since the late 1980s and has become something of a popular tradition. Its format is well-known and it is replete with appeals to the Great British Public. Indeed, is constructs a certain kind of national self-perception that resonates with longer-standing Christian, liberal, and philanthropic public moralities. It has no equal in other Western states. The Red Nose Day tradition is, then, closely guarded by Comic Relief as its central moment of public address. For a prominent politician with a strong social media presence (does any MP tweet more than Lammy?) to question its modus operandi is clearly going to generate a concern that the legitimating ritual might become tarnished.


There is no exit

Lammy stresses that Comic Relief and charitable fundraising for the distant poor are indeed great British institutions. He simply suggests that the imagery deployed to elicit those charitable moments be based in more complex and thicker reportage of African lives. Again, this seems sensible to an extent that borders on the common-sense.

But, would it really work? One consequentialist counter-argument goes something like: yes, we use the rich and famous westerners to publicise our good works but this is the best way to get people to contribute. Some of the responses to Lamy emphasise that Comic Relief has raised over a billion pounds for poverty alleviation projects. Perhaps the ends justify the means.

But, Lammy’s moderate and sensible suggestion would not work even if we decide to reject the justification of lucrative fundraising outcomes in favour of some more intrinsic valuing of the distant poor. This is because the image and narrative of, say, an entrepreneurial Tanzanian woman who runs a cooperative that gives work to single mothers, or the charisma of a South African middle-class stand-up comedian visiting a health clinic cannot do the affective work of the western celebrity. In other words, Lammy’s apparently moderate suggestion has within it the implication that the entire purpose of Comic Relief as an agency for celebrity philanthropy and fundraising is redundant. In this perspective, it is not an issue of ‘race’ as much as fame and the cultural familiarity that enables empathy. Comic Relief – an agency very well networked with celebrities, philanthropists, and what’s left of New Labour – is a powerful gatekeeper institution, curating popular encounters with Africa and other distant impoverished places through the media of their celebrity roster. Perhaps the greater and more disruptive import of Lammy’s questioning – even if it is not what he intends – is that the entire Comic Relief and Red Nose Day ritual is best politely forgotten in the hope that other possibilities are opened up for the construction of knowledges of and with Africa. For as long as we discuss the moral merits of a Comic Relief celeb, the chances of this happening are limited.

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