Thursday, March 15, 2007
Lest I be cast as an incurable misanthrope I must inform readers that I once dressed up in a pink dress on World Book Day (Bill’s New Frock); played the role of the grumpy shepherd in the infants play with comic abandon and came to the school disco disguised as a Jamaican rasta.
When it comes to Comic Relief my abiding memory is being sworn at by designer-scruffy, sallow-skinned, heroin-thin, stubble-chinned, hollow-cheeked, mega-rich pop stars – “poverty is your fault, give us the money bastards”. We took it from Saint Bob, now imitation is so passé. I instinctively reach for the off button when grinning, fat, bespectacled, follicly-challenged, WASP businessmen shuffle blinking into the spotlight clutching over-sized cheques with their company’s name displayed in huge letters.
Undoubtedly charities can play a vital role, innovate when governments or councils hesitate; provide those extras that can make all the difference to disadvantaged people or organisations - there’s no doubt that Comic Relief has done some fantastic work in Britain and overseas.
However, for many people there is a residual fear, suspicion, and even hatred of charities. Why? Because there’s that patronising stereotype of needy, grateful, supplicants touching their forelocks as Lord or Lady Bountiful distribute alms to the deserving poor. Or with Comic Relief a billionaire pop star descends on bemused African villagers, rushes round looking jolly, organises an “impromptu” football match and then high tails it in his convoy of limousines back to the 5 star hotel in the metropolis.
Comic Relief is superb for television – here we are we’re doing our bit. Yet news reporting on developing countries is at an all time low. Compare the hours spent on the deluge that affected Bocastle (a few hundred well-insured business people) with the paltry seconds on the floods that ravaged Bangladesh, where millions endured weeks of misery and starvation squatting on the roofs of their tin shacks.
If television and the BBC have a mission to explain then Comic Relief is not part of it, the programme is like reality TV – cheap and trashy, ratings-fuelled, the equivalent of junk food, with its sugar rush that eventually addles the brain. When will any of the salient facts about “aid” to developing countries appear? For every £1 donated, £8 will be paid back in debt payments. Maybe they could invite an IMF policy wonk to explain why benefits and schooling are routinely abolished or cut? Could they even hint at the unjust terms of trade – i.e., the millions in subsidies doled out to wealthy Norfolk sugar beet farmers, while sugar cane producers in Mozambique (who can grow the same raw material at a fraction of the cost) are excluded from the world market? In the absence of this Comic Relief helps to perpetuate the myth that poverty is due to some kind of aberrant natural disaster.
Many charities haven’t got an exemplary record overseas – spending too much on administration, failing to employ local people and allowing money to disappear through corruption. As one American president cynically explained charity is, “poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries”.
Contrary to the image businesses in Britain give a tiny percentage of their profits to charity - last year just 0.95% of their pre tax profits was donated, making up only 5% of leading charities income. And who donates the highest percentage of their income to charity? The poor, Sunderland was top of the charity giving league table. In 2006 the Charities Aid Foundation reported that the richest 1% owned one quarter of the wealth but only contributed 7% of the money given by individuals to charities.
Call it compassion fatigue but Comic Relief has had its day, that tired old formula – its Z-list celebs desperate for any publicity to resuscitate a faltering career; the cheap and tacky “specials”; those supreme moments of unintended irony as call centre staff raise huge sums of money before the banks ship all their jobs out to Bangalore; the pressure-selling and desperate pleas for money as the programme reaches its climax, tug the heart strings, bang in another film about street children in India but whatever you do don’t mention Bhopal. I’m at one with the comedian Mark Steel, when Phil Collins comes onto the screen with film running behind him showing a poor child in the Third World and asks who is going to help him? I’m shouting at the screen, “You, you’re loaded!”
We’re baling out the ocean with a thimble. In our celebrity-obsessed consumer culture we’re showing a few nanoseconds of concern. Still, as Smashy and Nicey used to say it’s all for “charidy”.
Aside from the reasons mentioned, I am also left with a bad taste in my mouth whenever images of human suffering are broadcast to a soundtrack of Coldplay, Keane, etc.