Poverty porn? You’re having a laugh!

This week Comic Relief came under friendly-fire for a film they produced with global pop mega-star Ed Sheeran. While several hundred people voted it the most offensive fundraising video of the year, over six million people have viewed it on YouTube and countless others would have seen it on BBC 1 the night it was broadcast. This back-handed award comes at a time of unprecedented criticism of international development in UK media and politics.

In the video, the popstar shows his naivety but at the same time displays his relatability. He meets children living on the streets in a coastal village in Libera and has what critics brand a ‘white savior’ reaction. He wants to get them off the street and put them up in a hotel until they can “get something sorted”. He says he’ll pay “whatever it costs”. But he slowly realizes that if he takes just five, he will leave behind many more. And it dawns on him that getting poverty “sorted” in Liberia, let along the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, might be a bit beyond even his massive bank balance.

I’ve seen his reaction before. I saw it in friends and family who visited me when I lived in Kenya. They met children and families living in unimaginable poverty, in Nairobi’s urban slums. Understandably they wanted to help. They even offered to help. But soon they realize that global poverty is a big and structural problem that needs big and structural solutions. Charities can help, no doubt, but only taxpayers and governments can intervene in markets to develop them in a pro-poor way and, eventually, truly make poverty history.

Comic Relief is not poverty porn. Poverty porn is Benefits Street. It looks down at people and judges them as feckless and undeserving. Comic Relief does something entirely different. It asks viewers to empathize with people they will never meet, who live in countries they will never visit. It meets the British public where they are and agrees that “charity begins at home”. But it doesn’t stop there. Comic Relief has consistently raised tens of millions of pounds every year for the past two decades by harnessing the generosity of ordinary people. And Comic Relief has helped start a conversation in living rooms up and down the country about things most of us have never experienced, happening in very far-away places.

Comic Relief is seriously funny. But Comic Relief is also a serious British institution and we denigrate their serious efforts to tackle global poverty at our considerable political and moral cost.

Richard Darlington is an original founder of WonkComms and now works for 20 of the biggest UK based international development charities. Follow him on Twitter: @RDarlo

WonkComms Original: founder and editorial board member

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