During the past few weeks of blogging, I have for the most part dedicated my posts to exploring different ICT and digital media initiatives that deal with issues of voice and representation in development communication. These previous blog posts on the topic can be found here:
- #nowhitesaviors – Fighting Mindsets Through Social Media
- Stories out of Africa – Replacing Pessimism with Optimism
- Dismantling Stereotypes – the case of Radi-Aid
Many much-needed initiatives have emerged for this cause in recent years. These initiatives have had an impact on the practices and approaches of organisations working with development.
Racial power dynamics in development communication
The truth is that questions of the ethics of humanitarian practices and of when, how and by whom these practices should be carried out, have been debated for a long time. (Richey, 2018) As I have been discussing in previous posts, the practices of development are deeply rooted in the colonial legacies of ‘the civilising mission of Africa’ and other parts of the formerly colonised world. Development and humanitarianism is far from straightforward, but rather a complex and controversial topic which is difficult to ‘get right’. (Shringarpure, 2020)
Like I discussed in my post #nowhitesaviors – Fighting Mindsets Through Social Media, the development field has not been immune to issues of racism and racial power dynamics. The communication strategies of many NGO’s often involve marketization of the suffering of black and brown people and include examples of white saviorism. These strategies are often also steeped in stereotypes and representations that are belittling the people and the communities they are set out to help. (Ademolu & Warrington, 2019) For this reason, the development field has received much criticism in recent years for the inequality and the hierarchal power structures that are limiting its practices. According to Ademolu & Warrington (2019):
“Many international development studies have critiqued the different ways in which visual representations of global poverty affect, shape, and inform public perceptions, knowledge, and dispositions (Ademolu & Warrington, 2019, p. 67) “
Representations and discourses carry meaning with them. Whether intentional or not, they have the power to distinguish differences between people and creating ideas about ‘us’ and ‘them’. While there has been much debate on these issues and people are gradually becoming more aware of this problem, it is still a reoccurring appearance in campaigns. Local voices are still not given the space they should have. (Shringarpure, 2020)
Comic Relief & Celebrity Humanitarianism
One of the organisations that has repeatedly been under fire on issues of white saviorism and stereotypical representations of the global South is Comic Relief. The UK charity was founded in 1985 and has since then been focused on three key things where their famous fundraising campaigns: the Red Nose Day and Sport Relief is the most important. They aim is to use the money they raise during these events, to tackle poverty across the globe and to work with awareness raising. (Comic Relief, A, 2020)
Part of their approach involve the use of Western celebrities for fundraising purposes, a practice which is not uncommonly used by development organisations. The use of celebrities for humanitarian appeals can help to make the cause more appealing and draw more public attention. (AidEx, 2019) Yet, these practices are far from unproblematic. Among the many issues with celebrity humanitarianism however, is the reproduction of systemic inequality. (Chouliaraki, 2013) Chouliaraki explains it as:
“…celebrity humanitarianism today not only rests on assumptions of passivity on the part of local populations, but further glamorized the idea of the western sovereign subject who acts in the name of those unable to represent themselves.” (Chouliaraki, 2013, pp. 84)
It can be argued that it should not be famous celebrities from the West that are flown to countries in Africa to tell stories about the people there. Instead the local communities should be given voice and agency to speak for themselves.
The critique against Comic Relief
A debate on increased inclusivity in the Comic Relief campaigns and a call to deal with the issues of stereotypical representations have emerged in recent years. Different media outlets and organisations that work with awareness raising have continuously put pressure on the organisation to do something about it. (Shringarpure, 2020) Two of the organisations that engaged in the cause were covered here in previous posts: Radi-Aid and No White Saviors.
As is described by Denskus (2019) on his blog Aidnography, the organisation Comic Relief has been following certain steps of ‘White Saviorism communication rituals’. The organisation has not faced the criticism or dealt with the problem at all. He argued that they not at that point (in 2019) had learned from past debates. Instead they have continued the same approach and have been persistent in defending their actions. Many celebrities that they have been working with previously have done the same. The organisation have been called out for it again and again both by researchers and local voices demanding action. (Denskus, 2019)
While they have been called out numerous times for unethical imagery and for issues of white saviorism in their campaigns, Comic Relief have previously been unsuccessful to move further than to simply give local voices a symbolic space in their campaigns. (Ademolu & Warrington, 2019) Or perhaps until now.
A shift in the approach
It seems as if the many critiques have finally hit the heart of the organisation. Or at least we can hope so. On October 28th this year, the organisation did a press release where they presented a shift in their approach. In comparison to the tokenistic steps of inclusion and of failing take ownership for past mistakes, this seems to be a more hands-on approach. In the press release they express:
“Over the past 18 months, the charity has challenged themselves and modernised to find the right balance in terms of highlighting serious international issues while ensuring authentic local voices are at the forefront.” (Comic Relief 28 oct 2020)
What does this really mean for Comic Relief’s communication practices?
This new shift in the Comic Relief approach guarantees modernisation of their appeals. This is, of course, long overdue. Yet, by framing it so, they show that they have realised that the way they have used communication to raise money is both old-fashioned and outdated. However, they are not apologising for past errors. They are acknowledging that they have to take some steps to change their practices and shift their narrative. (Comic Relief, B, 2020)
A platform for local voices
According to this press release, Comic Relief now seek to shift the focus of their appeals. It is fully to be on the communities themselves. To achieve this, they have developed a set of “Storytelling guidelines” which will be a basis for the production of the appeals. (Comic Relief, B, 2020)
These guidelines include that all new African video appeals will be made by African filmmakers also. It will focus on giving the local communities a voice. Previously the focus has been on high profile Western Comic Relief supporters who have travelled to an African country and shared their reactions to what they saw and experienced during those trips. Now the spotlight will instead be on a wide range of members of the local communities, such as project workers, people working in healthcare, parents etc. The aim is that all aspects of their film-making process: from production, to both front and behind the camera are to become more inclusive. (Ibid. 2020)
New role for high profile supporters
However, Comic Relief will still give room for their high profile supporters. Instead of in the production of the appeals, they will be present on fundraising events on TV and various other fundraising projects. Hence, they will no longer be sent to the international project sights in Africa like they previously have. (Comic Relief, 2020, B)
The organisation will also start to work together with African media organisations to do creative film projects to do awareness raising on African narratives. (Ibid. 2020)
An open dialogue
They will also start a new online discussion series. The aim is to highlight racial inequalities that are present in the charity sector. They want to find better ways to work together with Black and minority led communities and fight inequalities. Additionally, the organisation aim to work together with African media organisations to do creative film projects. By doing do, they seek to a create platform for various African narratives. (Comic Relief, B, 2020)
Stereotypes and unethical representations of development are contributing to the imbalance between the global North and the global South. It poses a threat to an equal world. Representations shape our perception of reality and thus it is crucial that they are nuanced, ethical and inclusive (Ademolu & Warrington, 2019). Perhaps people are finally becoming more aware of this.
ICT initiatives & movements
During this past year, the Black Lives Matter movement gained widespread attention across the globe. The tragic death of George Floyd gave the BLM movement a push that has left no-one untouched. Many of us have realised that we need to take ownership in how we are contributing to inequality in our everyday lives. Perhaps that is also impacted this sudden shift in Comic Relief’s approach.
In a post by AidEx (2019) it is highlighted that it is no longer enough to just have good intentions with your development projects and campaigns. You need to aware of the impact that your narratives have on your consumers. (AidEx, 2019) I would argue that social media movements such as #nowhitesaviors, #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, @everydayAfrica and #blacklivesmatter have played an important role in educating people and keep the debate rolling.
Media & Organisations
Awareness raising made by different organisations and pressure from the media have also put pressure and forced many organisations to shift their narrativ and informed people of the part they play in contributing to inequality. ICT and digital media initiatives have the potential to keep people and organisations accountable and force them to reflexivity and change.
Whether Comic Relief will be successful to implement these new guideline or if they will continue to use the same harmful narratives is a question that only time will tell. If they continue on a destructive path, the international community will hold them accountable.
A few final reflections
Before ending this last post and bidding farewell, I wish take a few moments to reflect on the past weeks of blogging. It has been time-consuming couple of weeks to say the least. However, it has also been so educational and one of the more useful weeks of my university studies. First and foremost, I have gained a deeper understanding on the technical level – what is needed to make a blog functional, readable and accessible. But that is not all. It has sparked my creativity and opened my eyes to the potentials of both blogging and social media campaigns for a better world. Of course this blog has had a limited audience and it will not result in any drastic world changes, but it has given me something to take with me for the future.
Blogging for development
Denskus & Papan (2013) describe how blogging has become influential within the field of development. Not only is it impacting work practices of development professionals, it is an opportunity to reflect on experiences from the development field. Is not only to encourage a debate and spread knowledge, but also to increase one’s own knowledge and understanding. (Denskus & Papan, 2013) This is perhaps the most important thing that I take with me from this course. We need to make sure that there is a way to keep ourselves updated on current debates. It is important to stay up-to-date and monitor the current debates in the field. But most importantly, it can be a place to be reflexive.
Like I mentioned in earlier posts, I chose my university studies and my career path with a desire to do good. This was a dream I have had since I was very young. I wanted to make a difference for people far from my own home. They were, as far as I understood it, in need of my help so ‘desperately’. It took long until I understood how questionable the nature of my “dreams” can actually be. Still today, I need to continuously examine my own motives and narratives to not fall in that pit again. Blogging is one way to do that.
AidEx, 2019, Comic Relief and the power of celebrity, March 15 2019, AidEx, Retrieved from: https://www.aid-expo.com/blog/240-comic-relief-and-the-power-of-celebrity Retrieved: 30 November 2020
Ademolu, E. & Warrington, S. 2019: Who Gets to Talk About NGO Images of Global Poverty? (Links to an external site.), Photography and Culture, August.
Chouliaraki, L., 2013, . The Ironic Spectator. [electronic resource] : Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism (1.). Wiley.
Comic Relief, 2020, A, Frequently Asked Questions, Comic Relief. Retrieved from: https://www.comicrelief.com/frequently-asked-questions/ Retrieved: 29 November 2020
Comic Relief, 2020, B, Comic Relief to Hire African Film Makers to Work on New International Appeal Films. 28 October 2020, Comic Relief. Retrieved from: https://www.comicrelief.com/press-releases/comic-relief-to-hire-african-film-makers-to-work-on-new-international-appeal-films/ Retrieved: 29 November 2020
Shringarpure, B., 2020 Africa and the Digital Savior Complex, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 32:2, 178-194
Denskus T., & Papan, A.S., 2013, Reflexive engagements: the international development blogging evolution and its challenges, Development in Practice, 23:4, 455-467
Denskus, T., 2019, White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps, Aidnography: Communicating Development, 5 March. Retrieved from: https://aidnography.blogspot.com/2019/03/white-saviour-dooley-lammy-comic-relief-communication-rituals.html Retrieved: 30 November 2020
Richey, L., A., 2018 Conceptualizing “Everyday Humanitarianism”: Ethics, Affects, and Practices of Contemporary Global Helping, New Political Science, 40:4, 625-639