David Lammy MP has been vocally critical this week that Western aid efforts could be fuelling a white saviour complex, after a twitter row sparked by a photograph of Stacey Dooley posing with a Ugandan child during her recent visit to film a documentary for Comic Relief. This is not the first time that Comic Relief films have been accused of promoting “poverty porn”, and three films made for Comic Relief and the Disasters Emergency Committee were nominated the “most offensive” campaigns at the 2017 Radi-Aid Awards.
To be fair, the row is not about skin colour, but about how to highlight issues of poverty – and many of the DEC members’ or Comic Relief’s intentions in doing this are good – without the perceived need to fly in someone from outside to do so. It is a reflection of our celebrity culture that many people may not hear about a need in a different part of the world (or even in their own neck of the woods) unless it is promoted by a celebrity, by someone whom they follow on Twitter or Instagram (other social media platforms are available!). There are of course many celebrities in Africa who are much closer to the needs, and who are already championing these causes. The problem is that they may be less well known in parts of the world where there are many people with financial resources and the generosity to give something to people in need in other places but do not know where to channel this giving, and the motivation to give to those who are less fortunate should be celebrated. We must always all be challenged by what more we can do to redress the imbalances in our world and live in such a way that allows our resources to be shared more equitably.
There are of course ways of promoting a cause more sensitively. Photos of African children can be shared (with the families’ permission) by the western celebrities who have visited them, without the need for the celebrity herself or himself to take centre stage. Western celebrities can be accompanied by African ones, so that both “cause” and “art” can be promoted. Situations of great need can be photographed in ways that come across (or are, depending on your perspective) as less exploitative. The famous photo of a girl fleeing naked from a horrific napalm attack in Cambodia is still rightly the subject of controversy.
The Friends of Ibba Girls’ School are keenly aware of this dilemma. We do have to take photos of the girls and staff at the school in order to help people who are too far away to visit to get a glimpse of the transformational work that we do. We do send volunteers from the UK and elsewhere to support continuing professional development. But we do this very deliberately in a very collaborative way, working with the local community, students, staff and governors and trustees of the school. We take photos of hope not despair. We only share photos when we have consent to do so. We do not take photographs of ourselves or to promote the involvement of any of our volunteers and donors in helping the school’s development.
Sadly, perhaps, but inevitably, the realities of global finances, climate change and power politics mean that we are going to continue to have to share images which prompt people to donate money to people for whom that donation can be life-changing. But we can do so in ways which showcase the amazing work that is already being done on the ground by small local organisations, by local celebrities and people of influence, by dedicated people across all levels of societies across all of Africa who are passionate about leaving their children a better world than the one they inherited.
Mark Simmons, FIGS CEO, 1 March 2019