NEW JERSEY – Comic Relief is a British charity that raises money for disadvantaged people both in the United Kingdom and overseas. Every two years, it holds Red Nose Day, when supporters wear red clown noses. The day culminates in a TV extravaganza featuring comedians and celebrities. This year, Red Nose Day raised £63.5 million (¥9.3 billion) — a lot of money, but down nearly £8 million from two years ago.
Two weeks earlier, David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, had criticized Comic Relief for flying Stacey Dooley, an English television presenter, to Uganda, where she was photographed holding an African child. Lammy, who is black, tweeted, “The world does not need any more white saviors,” adding that the image “perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes.” Instead, he suggested, we should “promote voices from across the continent of Africa.”
On British television, Lammy granted that charity is a good thing but said, “Comic Relief is a 20-year-old formula that asks comedians to perform and sends celebrities — most often white — out to Africa, and that image evokes for lots of ethnic minorities in Britain a colonial image of a white beautiful heroine holding a black child, with no agency, no parents in sight.”
Views like Lammy’s have gained some traction in progressive circles, possibly affecting this year’s Red Nose Day donations. Would it be better if white celebrities did not appear for Comic Relief?
The organization presumably tries to raise the most money it can by involving those celebrities who have the most drawing power with its audience. The people who run the organization no doubt believe that if they did not enlist white celebrities to raise funds, less would be raised. They may well be right about this — certainly Lammy has not asserted that Comic Relief could raise as much money without the support of white celebrities.
It also seems likely that if less money were raised, fewer Africans could be helped. Dooley said: “I saw projects that were saving lives with the money. Kids’ lives.”
In saying that the world does not need any more white saviors, Lammy is hardly likely to have meant that the world happens to have exactly the right number of white saviors. We can take him as suggesting that the world would be a better place with fewer white saviors. On the other hand, surely he is not denying that the world could use more saviors — or at least, more people willing to spend time and effort in helping people in extreme poverty.
Millions of Africans die each year because they lack safe drinking water, sanitation, basic health care or bed nets to protect them against malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Others are blind because they cannot afford a simple cataract operation. Some women are social outcasts because a childbirth that went wrong produced a fistula, leaving them incontinent and unable to afford surgery to repair the hole between their vagina and their bladder or rectum (or both). The more people who are prepared to put their time, money and thought into reducing these problems, the better.
“David, is the issue with me being white? (Genuine question) … because if that’s the case, you could always go over there and try to raise awareness.” Dooley’s question, posed in a tweet, pushes Lammy and those who share his views to say whether they think it is a problem that those working to improve the lives of Africans living in extreme poverty are white, or rather that they are not African. Given China’s increasing presence in Africa, that’s not just a theoretical question.
Some progressives may welcome China’s new investment in Africa, because it provides an alternative to Western involvement. But it seems more likely that what progressives would like to see is change in Africa being driven and directed by Africans, rather than by those from outside the continent. If this is what they want, however, then their criticism of “white saviors” boomerangs on them, for they are themselves mostly non-African outsiders.
Lammy is black, but he is British and completed his education at Harvard Law School. Being black does not make him a spokesperson for the Africans whom Western charities are trying to help.
Worldwide, extreme poverty is falling, but it continues to rise in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half of those affected now live. By 2030, the World Bank forecasts, nearly 90 percent of all extremely poor people will live in sub-Saharan Africa. Yes, it would be best if the problem of extreme poverty in Africa could be solved by Africans, but at the moment that is not happening.
It is Africans living in extreme poverty who are best placed to decide if they want to reject assistance based on who the donors are. There is evidence about how they decide. When the United Kingdom’s Against Malaria Foundation offers people in Togo bed nets and explains how they will protect their children from an often fatal disease, the nets are accepted and used.
Likewise, when GiveDirectly offers every adult in a Kenyan village a basic income equivalent to $274 per year, and tells them they will get it, unconditionally, for 12 years, the villagers do not refuse. And when Village Enterprise offers small groups of East Africans seed capital, training and mentoring to start small businesses, they eagerly enroll in the program.
It seems that very few people in need care about the color of the skin of the people who direct the organizations helping them, or whether they live in Africa. If the goal is to help those living in extreme poverty, we need all the saviors we can find.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His books include “The Most Good You Can Do” and “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” ©2019, Project Syndicate, 2019; www.project-syndicate.org