Chris Jackson/Comic Relief for Getty Images
I just sat down to write about how much I agree with David Lammy. I switched on my PC simply to say how right he was this week to criticise the business of the “white saviour” in relation to charity appeals and how he’s correct to highlight how the image of rich white people arriving in Africa to somehow save the continent does hark back to the colonial era. But now, as I begin to write, I realise that I also disagree with David Lammy on one fundamental point. I don’t think the problem is necessarily that the celebrities are white. The problem is that they’re celebrities.
I understand, of course, the colonial argument. This is as much about optics as it is about politics. Yet I felt the very same disquiet when the celebrity visiting Africa was Lenny Henry. I feel it too whenever I see the next mob of celebrities scramble up Mount Kilimanjaro for a Relief that’s either Comic or Sporty. I feel it whenever (insert your pimpled boy band of choice here) appears on the screen to raise our awareness of some issue we’ve probably known about for quite a while since… you know… we read the newspapers.
Get beyond the patronising way they go about it. Get beyond the way these celebrities experience (for charity) places that most people in the UK could only dream of experiencing. Get beyond the charity t-shirts made in a Bangladeshi sweat-shop (see today’s headlines elsewhere). The essential problem is that much of what they do is so infuriatingly simplistic. You didn’t need to take your Bono-coloured glasses off in order to realise that it was too easy to sing “feed the world” and think we’d done our part. It’s another matter to feed people in a political context ravaged by war and still ravaged by individuals with the very worst intentions (and given succour by external forces with eyes on that nation’s natural resources).
Not, I hasten to add, that this argument is a new one. Ed Sheeran’s Red Nose Day video from 2017 won “top prize” at last year’s Radi-Aid Awards, a satirical campaign created to “challenge the perceptions around issues of poverty and development, to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate, and to break down dominating stereotypes.” That alone makes the point that Lammy is not just right. He’s right in a way that’s been argued often and for a long time. This doesn’t just speak to the problem of Comic Relief and Live Aid but to the problems of all these high-profile campaigns to change the world thanks to the best instincts of Sting, a Spice Girl, or that bloke who works at the fish and chip shop in Corrie (can you tell I don’t watch the show?).
Celebrities aren’t magical beings. Nor are they particularly moral beings. That’s fine. None of us are or should be expected to be. Yet celebrities bring with them the spin, the PR, and the marketing machine that would make us believe they are both magical and moral. It gets to the heart of the disquiet we should feel of the photographs of the celebrities with the great skin and perfect teeth, cradling a malnourished baby.
Who, really, is being elevated in those photographs? What do those photographs really say? That riddle is a difficult one to unpick, especially once “Africa” – itself such a damning simplification for a continent that includes the wealth of Nigeria and extreme poverty of, well, Nigeria – suddenly becomes a problem that celebrities think they can solve. Wielding that higher power they call “exposure”, they attack difficult subjects with such a sing-song morality that the oversimplifications simply become too much.
And that, I think, is the central truth to David Lammy’s argument. He’s right, as many others have been right, about the deeply counterproductive way that poverty – especially sub-Saharan poverty – has become codified into our culture. If that sounds like an overstatement, then just think about the way we think of the homeless here in the UK. We tell our children never to speak to strangers, yet we celebrate internet memes in which children give their lunches to the homeless. We teach compassion yet our movies teach us that the homeless are a threat. In our constant need to simplify, we make the impoverished benign, benevolent, and impassive, or we make them hostile, threatening and downright dangerous.
The truth is obvious. They’re human beings, like all of us, shaped by life to be individual. Consider the moral complexity of the stories around the Manchester bombing, how the homeless who rushed to help victims were lionised and then demonised. These issues are as complex as our morality and as deeply bound up with our economics, politics, and culture.
None of this is to say that instinctively wanting to help is wrong. Stacey Dooley wanted to do some good and we should applaud her for that. Simple condemnation would be another simplification too far. We should also not forget where this began or how it grew from noble aims. You might dislike the man for many reasons but it’s to Bob Geldof’s very great credit that he responded, as did so many, to Michael Buerk’s report from Ethiopia on the 1984 famine.
Yet for all the good that Geldof did – and it would be churlish to deny that or to attack his motives, his ambition, or even his subsequent knighthood – there was considerable naivity in his approach.
In 2005, David Rieff, an expert in foreign aid, wrote a damning verdict in The Guardian(hardly a place for hard-nosed polemics undercutting the business of foreign aid) describing how “guilt-stricken donations helped fund a brutal resettlement programme that may have killed up to 100,000”.
The American music and culture magazine, SPIN, published in 1986 an even more unsettling report which described how “[t]he Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu, until then deadlocked in the war, was using the money the west gave him to buy sophisticated weapons from the Russians, and was now able to efficiently and viciously crush the opposition.” Geldof, the report says, “was warned, repeatedly, from the outset by several relief agencies in the field about Mengistu” yet he lived by the rubric that “I’ll shake hands with the Devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help.”
That is, of course, far beyond the Stacey Dooley story, which isn’t about corruption, NGOs, or even the geopolitics of the region.
What Lammy is attacking is something that’s perhaps even more insidious. It’s the investment we place in brightly haloed individuals (too often glaringly and problematically white) to solve difficult problems, as well as the shameless cynicism we have towards politicians who have the hard and often brutal work of achieving those goals. It also speaks to the cult of charity which affects all of us. It’s about “poverty porn” but also the guilt assuaged by the charity box in the supermarket.
Charity is admirable but pointless if you walked by as, this past week, porters from Southern Rail threw a bucket of water over a homeless guy who was sleeping outside their station. (And if the morality of that isn’t complex enough, does it change much given that the homeless guy was a convicted killer? [Clue: it doesn’t.]) What, indeed, is the point of charity if you don’t think long and hard about your politics and make your politicians aware that your vote cannot be counted upon so long as they continue to ignore the plight of the homeless? (And, Tories, yes, I’m speaking to you. Laugh as much as you like at the chaos in Labour ranks but they still have you beat on that issue.)
So, yes, yes, and yes again. David Lammy is right.
Yet, as a coda, let’s just add that he’s also wrong.
He’s wrong to ask that we “instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.” Well, perhaps not wrong but, arguably, naïve in his own way. Because, whilst it’s another admirable goal, what does “serious debate” even mean? These problems are global in scale, have much to do with a newly colonial China out to secure mineral rights by whatever means available. This has to do with the approach of the West, itself informed (and, yes, weakened) by the guilt we have been taught to feel about our own colonial past. It is also about the politics of a continent, where tribalism still stands in the way of progress. The problem of Africa is so intractable that by reducing it to a “problem with Africa”, you don’t even address the real challenges faced by 54 individual countries and their peoples.
And, perhaps, by reducing this argument to Stacey Dooley, we don’t even begin explore the moral sinkhole that opens up beneath our collective feet.