As children growing up in the UK in the 90s, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day represented a week of treats where we could wear non-uniform to school, throw water balloons at our teachers and sport red noses – all in the name of helping people living in poverty. Next month people around the country will once again embrace Red Nose Day, hoping to beat the £74 million raised in 2011. Comic Relief states that alongside raising funds it also aims to “help the public…understand the root causes of poverty and injustice”. To what extent will the campaign engage the public in a conversation about social justice? Will the discourse and images used present simplified and damaging views of the people it aims to help?
photo by author (of a photo by Julien Harneis)
Comic Relief creates an impact on its audience by contrasting an image of people living in poverty (often in African or South Asian countries) with a night of indulgent entertainment. The inequality made stark between viewers and the people they see on their screens is effective in stimulating guilt which drives donations, but does not encourage those watching to fully explore what they are confronted with.
In order to emphasise this inequality, direct comparisons are often made between the people featured and viewers’ lives in the UK. This year Christine Bleakley muses that “we take for granted safe water…imagine living where one mouthful could be fatal”. These contrasts draw attention to difference, helping to create a sense of “ourselves” and “others” where the measure of variance is poverty. This idea of poverty is often used to explain the situations depicted, however the meaning and causes of the concept are not fully unpacked.
Kate Simpson (writing about young people who have taken gap years in developing countries) argues that, when presented with inequality without an adequate framework to understand it, people rely on logic of luck to interpret what they are seeing. Comic Reliefs lack of engagement with the root cause of inequality and social injustice doesn’t invite viewers to look beyond this mysterious explanation of poverty. The stories told often focus on individuals or communities as a single unit without considering the wider structural context. This doesn’t initiate a conversation that considers history, culture, markets, gender or politics. Audiences are not encouraged to reflect on the structures that link their lives with those of the people on their screens and are not confronted with the ways in which they can take responsibility beyond making a donation to Comic Relief.
To drive contributions, Comic Relief emphasises the impact of the money raised and how easy it is for viewers to make a difference. Billy Connelly looks the audience straight in the eye, telling them that he has “no doubt that you can change the world”. This idea is exciting, however it doesn’t communicate the complex reality of generating change in the lives of people living in poverty. It doesn’t explain that, in using the funds, choices have to be made about who not to help and which programmes not to prioritise. There is no attention paid to the forces that may countervail these efforts such as politics, markets and environments.
Photo by author (of a photo by babasteve)
The picture presented is also inadequate in ways beyond this. In order to create impact, the Comic Relief campaign focuses on poverty, violence, fear and disaster. The images used are taken in slums, under resourced hospitals and the homes of the ill. This represents a partial view of the lives of people in these countries and reinforces a negative, narrow image of developing countries. As Chimamanda Adichie points out, the danger of this single story is that it creates stereotypes and that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete”. The story that is told is not damaging because the situations are fabricated or because people living in these countries don’t face huge challenges. They are damaging because they don’t give proportional weight to the triumphs and successes that also happen on a daily basis.
Comic Relief does go some way to present a different side of the lives of people featured in their publicity. Positive images of smiling children, improved living conditions and successful entrepreneurs often feature in the second half of their films. However, these are primarily used to illustrate the impact that funds raised by Comic Relief have made. There is a real emphasis placed on the hard work, resolve and capacity of people living in poverty to help themselves alongside Comic Relief funds. These statements are important. They hint at a second, parallel story beyond that of the helpless and suffering African. However, they are limited and still present people in a positive light within a context of deprivation.
This discourse, used by Comic Relief to communicate with the public, conceals issues related to poverty, social injustice and development. However, it is clear that, in its other areas of operation, the organisation makes a concerted effort to engage with these issues.
Comic Reliefs’ International Grants Strategy acknowledges its position within the global development context and that choices must be made in using its finite funds. There is an express focus on specific countries and locations and an explicit commitment to nine programme areas. In making grants there is an undertaking to understand the causes of poverty by examining a balanced picture of the cultural, political and socioeconomic context their partner organisations work in.
When considering grants made within the programme area of trade, Comic Relief acknowledges that economic growth holds no guarantee of increased job opportunities or living standards for the poorest people within a country. There is a consideration of structural factors such as the global trade system and local producer’s access to markets. The constraints that these may place on development strategies inform the support of partner organisations that work precisely with those vulnerable to the global supply chain, recognising that these people specifically have the least power.
There is a clear disparity between the language and concepts used to engage the public on Comic Relief night and those used by the organisation in its work throughout the year. To a large extent this may be explained by the primary purpose of fundraising during the evenings programming. Here the need is to generate shock, guilt and encourage people to ease these feelings by donating.
photo by author (of a photo by Meanest Indian)
The story that is told during the show on March 15th will be powerful. The viewing figures are often tremendous, peaking at 12m in 2011. The mixture of entertainment with issues based narratives draws a unique audience for whom this may be one of the few times they engage with development issues during the year. This suggests a missed opportunity to explore the structural links between their own lives and those on the screen. Viewers are permitted to feel that they have a limited responsibility to these others and that simply by making a small donation they can resolve conditions of poverty.
This does not increase the capacity of viewers to understand the development context, the role of the markets through which they secure their livelihoods and buy their commodities and the power of their government vis a vis other national governments. This does not increase the audiences’ incentive or capacity to advocate on behalf of the people they see on their screens.
Over the next few weeks people around the UK will embrace fundraising with good intentions to help a vital cause. There is little doubt that Comic Relief will succeed in its aim to raise significant funds to support change around the world. However, by focusing on its fundraising goals, is its raising awareness of the structural causes of poverty and global social justice compromised?
Kate Simpson: ‘Doing Development’: The gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development. (Simpson, K. (2004) ‘Doing Development’: The gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development, in journal of International Development, Vol. 16, pp.681-692)
Richard Moran is a current candidate for the MSc Development Administration and Planning at the DPU