“Poverty porn”: not in the Christmas spirit

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Christmas as we know it is a time of indulgence and excess. But it is also a time of ‘giving’ – in which philanthropy is an excellent reminder of how fortunate we are. Nevertheless, the way charities such as Comic Relief fundraise is anachronistic and inappropriate. Many of their adverts reinforce paternalistic, colonialist stereotypes, and present ‘Africans’ as being invariably helpless, waiting for the Westerner to save them.

It is imperative that everyone is aware of and wants to help combat the prevalence of absolute poverty in many African states. However, the methods of raising such awareness must change. The Norwegian Students and Academics International Assistance Fund (SAIH) criticise aid charities for formulaically perpetuating stereotypes through ‘poverty porn’. They recently held their Radi-Aid’s award (the name referring to their satirical advert of 2012, in which Africans fundraise to buy radiators for Norwegians during winter), which criticized Ed Sheeran’s 2017 Comic Relief advert.

The film shows Sheeran’s trip to Liberia, where he saved ‘a little boy who lives on the street’. The advert conforms to the typical Comic Relief formula and plays on the colonialist image of the civilized ‘white man’ saving ‘Africa’ from primitiveness. The tagline of the advert – ‘help us help them today’ – emphasises the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’, illuminating perceptions that Africans are a fundamentally different ‘other’.

Consider, in albeit extreme comparison, the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris. This event featured ‘human exhibits’ of colonised people to represent the different, and ultimately inferior, cultures of the colonies. While Comic Relief has a philanthropic aim, their adverts are similarly uninformative ‘exhibitions’ of poverty.

 

[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]Comic Relief misrepresents Africa, filling British people with disinterest and despondency[/blockquote]

 

Comic Relief also perpetuates images of a homogenous Africa. While Sheeran is in Liberia, there is a broader focus on African poverty. But portraying an entire continent as a dystopian land of deprivation is not a necessary evil, in order to raise awareness; on the contrary, it is ineffective. Year after year, Comic Relief present images of destitute black children with no food or water. While tragic, such images shield evidence of economic development. Consequently, the false belief that all Africans live in mud-huts at subsistence level is prevalent.

While this is true for some, most African countries have an urban middle class and growing infrastructure. By solely perpetuating images of poverty, Comic Relief misrepresents Africa, filling British people with disinterest and despondency. This impression encourages the belief that as there is no change, there is ‘no point’ in donating – also known as donor fatigue.

Radi-aid demonstrates that there are better ways to fundraise. War Child Holland’s advert about refugees in Yemen was nominated as one of the best fundraising films. The advert shows a child playing with Batman, who later turns into an exhausted father carrying his son. Beathe Øgård, president of SAIH, reflected that “you see a child using his imagination and playing. It is a refugee in Yemen but could be a child in Norway. It really hits a nerve.” This advert effectively humanizes those suffering in war-torn countries by highlighting similarity, rather than difference. Take note Comic Relief.

 

[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]At Christmas, “the drunk, festive Westerner is briefly reminded of a horrible, distant land of starving children.”[/blockquote]

 

Many of the problems I have discussed are epitomized by the Band Aid song ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’. The tune was produced in 1984 and (along with the ‘Live Aid’ concert) raised more than $150 million in total. Yet its continued popularity at Christmas, and its reproduction for the 2014 Ebola crisis, is inappropriate. The song generates images of Africa as a homogenous land of misery where ‘no rain or rivers flow’. As Bob Geldof wrote this song to fundraise for drought and famine in Ethiopia, there is no reason for ‘Africa’ to be the song’s focus. Modern listeners do not contextualize the lyrics and digest the presentation of Africa as a dystopian world, detached from reality.

The song’s title is also misleading. The answer to the question ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ depends on who ‘they’ entails. Christianity is popular in many countries such as Togo, but rural Togolese Muslims may not know or care that it is Christmas. The song thus presumes the supremacy of Western culture. Geldof’s famous lyrics ‘Thank God it’s them instead of you’ also invokes a familiar guilt-trip, in which the drunk, festive Westerner is briefly reminded of a horrible, distant land of starving children.

If you donate after watching a Comic Relief video or singing along to Band Aid, that is excellent. But do not internalize the underlying message that Africa is a homogenous land of misery and poverty that relies on the West for help. It is a continent of 54 states, some of which are more successful than others. The cities have slums, but they also have Radisson Blu Hotels. There is a greater disparity of wealth and absolute poverty than most other continents, but not everyone lives in a mud hut. The images perpetuated by Comic Relief and Band Aid relegate Africa to being a distant ‘other’, making people disillusioned and dejected. This must change.

Photograph: Judith E. Bell via Flickr and Creative Commons

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