‘Why I believe Comic Relief is patronising’

Who nose? Ed Sheeran forgot his own lyrics performing live on Friday night’s Comic Relief.
by David Lammy

British Labour Party politician and MP for Tottenham since 2000. One of five children raised by a single mother, he won a choral scholarship to The Kings School in Peterborough and went on to study at Harvard Law School.

Red Nose Day raised £71m this weekend for charitable causes. But David Lammy believes the image of Africa presented by Comic Relief is two-dimensional, clichéd and stuck in the past.

Raucous comedy, flamboyant red noses, celebrity endorsement and a plethora of ways to get involved from bake sales to triathlons: the Comic Relief formula has broad appeal.

But when I asked my mixed-race nine-year-old son why he thinks I should give money to him for wearing a red nose at school today, his reply was telling: “We have to help the poor people in Africa, daddy.”

How different is this to what his white grandparents would say? Africa may have changed beyond recognition, but over the generations knowledge and attitudes in Britain have not.

Africa may have changed beyond recognition, but over the generations attitudes in Britain have not

Comic Relief has promoted images of African poverty to the point where few of us can escape the guilt of not donating. The result: a tidal wave of giving, but little to challenge the Band Aid interpretation of an Africa “where nothing ever grows”.

It blurs the 54 separate nations into a single reservoir of poverty, grief and suffering. One billion African people are filtered into two categories: corrupt politicians with Savile Row suits and Swiss bank accounts, or poverty-stricken mothers swarming with flies, their children’s stomachs swollen by hunger.

This is not to say that dire poverty is not persistent – or that images of suffering and destitution are not a highly effective way to raise money. But Comic Relief should be different. It has to be.

The show has the chance to deal with complexity and it can afford to talk about solutions beyond mosquito nets, food parcels and digging wells.

It should not be afraid to talk about the triumphs of African nations as much as their challenges, even if those successes are not always the result of charity.

Life expectancies are up by over 10% in 37 African states; the percentage increase in the GDP of the 11 largest sub-Saharan countries was over twice the world average over the past decade. The Nigerian film industry – Nollywood – has overtaken Hollywood as the world’s second largest moviemaker.

Comic Relief should be helping to establish an image of African people as equals to be respected, rather than helpless victims to be pitied.

Most of all, it should challenge its audience to feel angry: angry that wars that have plagued the continent are permitted by an international market that places more restrictions on the exchange of bananas than on AK-47s; incandescent that the corruption is fuelled by “donations” from companies linked to corporations that are listed on our own stock exchange.

A 5% rise in developing countries’ share of world exports would generate $350 billion – seven times as much as they receive in aid.

Profit-shifting by companies costs developing nations $100 billion a year that they could spend on education and public services.

Comic Relief should have higher expectations of itself and its audience – we can still be charitable even when the message is laden with politics. After all, the Make Poverty History campaign demanded trade justice and debt relief alongside more and better aid.

Of course the fundraising is worthwhile, but the Red Nose Day formula is tired and patronising to Africans.

Things must change. We must have voices debating debt and dictatorship, trade agreements and entrepreneurship – not just appeals for people to phone in and pledge a few pounds.

You Decide

  1. Is “trade, not aid” a good idea?


  1. Divide the class into small groups. Half the groups should prepare five minute presentations about Africa’s success and huge potential. The other half should prepare the same about Africa’s needs and problems. Let each present to the rest of the class. At the end hold a vote: Africa, triumph or disaster?

Word Watch

Red noses
The tradition of buying and wearing the Comic Relief red noses started in 1988.
Band Aid
A charity supergroup featuring mainly British and Irish musicians. It was formed in 1984 by Bob Geldof. Band Aid raised $150m for the Ethiopian famine relief fund.
Savile Row
A street in Mayfair, central London, known for traditional, expensive tailoring for men.
Over twice the world average
And almost four times that of the USA.
Second largest moviemaker
The largest is Bollywood , India’s Hindi language film industry, which is worth $520m.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.