Millions of viewers are donating millions of pounds to Comic Relief, but could the charity be doing more harm than good?
We take a critical look at some elements of Comic Relief, and question whether these problems outweigh the benefits of the money raised.
1. Generalisations of ‘Africa’
Given the rhetoric around “Africa” on Comic Relief, you could be forgiven for thinking that the continent is a country.
Prof Cheryl McEwan, from Durham University, explains that the “generalisations about ‘Africa’ fail to recognise its diversity and complexity”.
For example, some African economies are experiencing enormous economic growth (such as Ethiopia), but African peoples and countries are still seen “through the prism of famine, disease, incompetent governments [and] passive victimhood”.
2. Rich celebrities speak for the poor
The “celebritisation” of development reinstates the colonial dichotomy of rich westerners “saving” the poor “other”.
This issue is complex, according to Prof Mike Goodman from the University of Reading, who explains: “On one level you have got the white saviour going in and talking about the other, but on the other level you have Cheryl Cole who will bring in millions of pounds.”
These beneficent heroes make a lot of money for Comic Relief, but Prof Goodman’s research found that people donated more if they liked the celebrity. Is that a worrying reflection on our obsession with celebrity culture?
3. Throwing money at problems isn’t the solution
More radical approaches are needed to tackle poverty, rather than simply spending money.
Comic Relief raises millions of pounds which is spent on infrastructure and education, which Prof McEwan thinks encourages ”donors to believe that throwing money at a problem solves it, while pervasive structural problems remain in place”.
Prof Goodman added: “You have the ability to narrow the focus and specialise [within Comic Relief] but you lose the structural causes of these sorts of things.”
However, Comic Relief has given more agency to poorer countries in recent years.
4. Unethical investments
Comic Relief invested millions of pounds of donations into funds with shares in tobacco, alcohol and weapons, according to the BBC.
Some of the charity’s investments appeared to contradict its core aims, which include helping “people affected by conflict”, such as its £630,000 of shares in the weapons company BAE systems.
Comic Relief also invested more than £300,000 in the alcohol industry despite “working to reduce alcohol misuse and minimise alcohol related harm”.
5. Superficial engagements with cultural difference
Just watching the telly and donating money is not a way of understanding diversity.
Prof McEwan suggests that Comic Relief makes “people in the global North feel good about superficial engagements with cultural difference, rather than encouraging deeper, more ethical engagement”.
However, the idea that they “dumb things down” is questioned by Prof Goodman who wonders what other option the producers have to get donations flying in.
“Comic Relief does what it says and it does it very well,” he explains.
And what does Comic Relief have to say about the criticisms?
A spokeswoman for the charity told us: “Every year the British public shows enormous generosity by fundraising to help people living incredibly tough lives in the UK and across Africa.
“As well as spending that money well, we believe Comic Relief has a duty to explain the issues. Poverty and social injustice in countries across Africa are extremely complex and we believe that celebrities, as well as fundraisers and school children, play a crucial part in bringing these issues to the forefront of people’s minds.
“Comic Relief works hard to share positive news about the progress being made across Africa and the world’s poorest communities, and this features prominently throughout this year’s campaign and particularly on the night of television.
“Whether that’s the fact that child deaths from malaria have been halved since 2000 thanks to the wider global effort; or that Comic Relief cash has ensured two million children have been vaccinated in the last five years. Since Comic Relief began 30 years ago more than 50 million people have been helped by the money raised.
“As part of our grant making criteria we actively look for applications that demonstrate long term sustainable change, such as ensuring children, especially girls, can access education – giving them the best possible chance to escape poverty.”