How Comic Relief is redefining western stereotypes of Africa through creativity, authenticity and human-centric narratives

How Comic Relief is redefining western stereotypes of Africa through creativity, authenticity and human-centric narratives

Comic Relief is 35 years old this year.

In its short existence it has raised over £1bn through annual campaigns, start-studded charity singles, action-packed live shows, Red Nose Day events, Sports Relief and the list goes on. 

The charity has been transparent about its spend, as far as the creation of the ‘golden pound’ principal - every penny raised goes to charity and all running costs and salaries are paid by corporate sponsorship – and flying their vision of ‘a just world free from poverty’ with pride. 

There are very few organisations with the scale, impact or skill to mobilise people to engage and contribute in such a variety of ways.

So, with all this good going for it why has Comic Relief been at the centre of a critical discourse for almost as long as its existence, and why the charity has finally taken the decision to Stop Sending Celebrities to Africa as part of their fundraising strategy?

There is a long and well-documented discussion surrounding the enormous topics I’m about to very lightly touch on below, but I hope this goes some way to shining a light on the reasons why, and why this progress is vitally important.

For many years Rt Hon. David Lammy MP has been relentlessly campaigning for change in the media, government and across his own channels. 

In 2017 he wrote a hotly discussed article for the Guardian about why Africa Deserves Better from Comic Relief that outlines how Comic Relief, and many other charities, rely on reinforcing tired stereotypes of starving children, corruption and extreme poverty to drive donations. A tactic that has gone a long way to driving a widely believed view that the entire African continent is one homogenous poverty-stricken place.

Much of the criticism recently has been that there are smarter ways to engage audiences that go further to develop empathetic understanding and give African people better representation. 

A pretty good summary of the big problem and why things needed to change is just one example of the endless efforts undertaken by Lammy and many others.

In 2019 Stacey Dooley and Comic Relief were called out, initially by the #NOWHITESAVIOURS advocacy group, and then latterly a large part of the Dooley fanbase, whilst filming in Uganda for the charity. A statement made by No White Saviours** at the time sums the argument up much better than I could: ‘We never said ‘no white people’. We just know you shouldn’t be the hero of the story.’

So here we are, new editorial guidelines for Comic Relief that mean the charity will stop sending celebrities to Africa and will no longer use starving people or critically ill children to portray the African continent. 

This is enormous news and its likely impact on fundraising attitudes could go a long way to redefining western views of Africa by using creativity, storytelling and human-centric narratives to drive a rounded authentic perspective.

"African people don't want us to tell their stories for them. What they need is more agency, a platform and partnership."

Sir Lenny Henry, who co-founded Comic Relief in 1985 said "A lot has changed over Comic Relief's 35 years, and so the way we raise money and talk about the issues we are here to tackle, and the people we are here to support, must change as well,"

"African people don't want us to tell their stories for them. What they need is more agency, a platform and partnership."

As part of the new approach, Comic Relief will preview three videos by filmmakers from across the African continent soon. The films will explore issues including mental health, climate change and forced marriages, which I’ll share when they’re released.

This move is an enormous step forward for Comic Relief, an organisation that does so much good across the world doing what is right by the African people. I for one cannot wait to see what the commitment to work with media organisations across Africa will do to raise "awareness of wider narratives across the continent" and deliver on the promise to make "every aspect" of its production "more diverse and inclusive" while allowing Comic Relief to shine for all of the great and good it does.

*#NOWHITESAVIOURS is a rapidly emerging, powerful phenomenon, dedicated to revealing African people as the heroes of our own stories.

**White Saviour - usually derogatory term for a white person who helps or has helped non-white people and may feel morally superior for doing or having done so.

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