The “White Saviour” furore

First of all, just to be clear, whilst I have been involved with fund raising for Comic Relief for the past few years and have made a couple of trips to projects with them I am in no way affiliated with them.  Not paid by them (never have been) and have no official role with them.   So anything I say here about the white saviour furore is just me dumping the thoughts in my brain and is not any kind of official response for either the charity or the group of bloggers called Team Honk.


Now that is out of the way, here goes.

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention to have seen in the press that Stacey Dooley shared a photo to Instagram last week that caused David Lammy to suggest the charity were perpetuating then myth of “white saviours” being parachuted in to save starve Africans.

In my experience of trips with the charity nothing could have been further from the truth.

And, can we also stop at this point and acknowledge Stacey’s role in this.  She was asked to go, I suspect, because she is a well known documentary maker.  She has travelled to some of the most dangerous parts of the world to report back on stories that we may never have heard about.  Raising issues such as the environmental impact of cheap fashion (huge.  This was a real eye opener for me); how kids can buy drugs online; sex trafficking; the sexualisation of children in Japan; why Honduras is the worst place in the world to be a woman to name but a few.  Stacey isn’t an airhead.  Picked because she won Strictly and will look pretty in front of the camera.   I fairly certain she was asked to go and report for Comic Relief because she has a proven track record of making incredible documentaries.  And because she has a young audience that the charity wants to reach.

The photo that Stacey shared was on her Instagram account.  Not Comic Relief’s.  It wasn’t shared in any kind of “official” capacity.  It was in all likelihood shared at the end of a tough day when Stacey had a chance to reflect on what she had done that day.

As Annie, Penny and I did when we went to Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya a few years ago.

Did we do those trips because we were white and felt in any way like we were saviours?  No, we didn’t.   We were asked to go because WE had approached Comic Relief to ask if we could use the power of bloggers to help raise an awareness of what the charity does, not just here but also abroad.

The message that 50% of money raised by the charity is spent in the UK still doesn’t seem to be reaching people at the back. 

Comic Relief isn’t just about Africa, or in fact starving children as seems to be then angle of many stories this week, it is about millions of people leading tough lives who need a hand.  Be that women fleeing domestic violence in Birmingham, homeless people on the streets of Glasgow, victims of FGM in London, teens suffering from mental health issues in Cardiff, you name it, I am pretty sure Comic Relief is supporting a project that helps those people regardless of their colour, religion or location.

Here is a post I wrote about  dementia and what Comic Relief were doing a few years ago to help support those living with this cruel disease in the UK: Red Nose Day and the Dementia Diaries

And here’s the other thing.   The really really important thing.

Funding to projects in Africa is not a hand out to the person in need, directly from the charity in London.  They aren’t doing Western Union money transfers from their offices on the Embankment to a bloke in a corner shop in an African city.

They don’t send money to people living in slums to go and buy food, or to plant crops.   They provide money to projects, not individuals.  Those projects MUST have been in operation for at least two years and in the heart of the communities they support.   How the project is run is closely scrutinised and only when everybody is happy is a grant then awarded to the project.   It might be for a specific purpose, or it might be something more long term.   But not once in any of the projects we have visited as cash been handed out that wasn’t actually a loan.

I will never forget the trip to the Basic Needs Trust we made in Accra.  I wrote about it here:  Ten Pounds and how it really helps Mental Health.  We sat and talked to a number of people who had been helped by the Trust, a trust that had received funding from Comic Relief.   Atta had suffered from mental health issues and was on the verge of suicide when he heard about the Trust.   Having attended meetings and expressed a desire to learn to be a carpenter he had been given a loan to buy the tools needed to train and become a carpenter.   He is now running his own business, he has paid the loan back, he is employing others as upholsterers.  Atta is a proud proud man.  He told his story with passionate and eloquence to those of us listening.

Atta told his story, I told my readers.

A point David Lammy seems to think never happens.  The very essence of what we were doing was showing that the people we were meeting were our equals.  Not once did we pity them.  Nor ask anyone else to.    And they certainly weren’t helpless.   Not one of them.  Not the ladies making batik, the women running a bakery and a classroom to educate their children as they worked, the soap makers.  None of them were to be pitied.

I have countless other examples.   Mothers 2 Mothers are one of the most inspiring groups of women I have ever met.  I still follow them now, bought a fund raising sweatshirt last year, shout about them when I see them mentioned on TV and will never forget what they are doing in Africa.

They are running a scheme called Mentor Mothers, who help, support and educate their communities on not just living with HIV but also preventing it.  How important taking medication is.   Nutrition too, and why eating at regular intervals is key to staying healthy.   These women are helping themselves and the others in their communities.   They are educating the men on why they need to use condoms.  They are empowered and empowering those around them.

Again, we told their stories.  My post is here:  Mothers2Mothers  In it I share a picture of Mr Johnstone, the most adorable little boy who was wearing a three piece suit with a shirt that looked slightly too large of him. And of the little girl above who was just hours old in that picture who was being given her first dose of anti retro viral drugs.   On 16th March she will be 4 and free from HIV.    Those drugs were paid for by the project, supported by Comic Relief.

Am I a white saviour?  No of course I am not. We have people from all walks of life in the UK, literally walking to raise money.  Getting out of their comfort zones to try and help other people around the world, whether that is a project down the road (we all live within 30 miles of a project receiving funding from Comic Relief) or overseas.

Do I think we are doing this to “save starving children”?  No of course I do not.  I see that we are empowering people, supporting them, helping them to help themselves in many cases.

Do we pity them? No we do not.

Are we denying any of those people a voice by not putting them in front of the camera?  No of course not.  We are telling their stories with them.

And that is something for which I will never apologise.

  • I have made no comment on social media about this, as I am in the US and felt maybe I didn’t know enough about Comic Relief – though I follow it every year and support it in a tiny way when I can – to effectively respond to Lammy’s harsh criticism, which surprised and saddened me. So I am VERY happy to read about your own experience and also to learn more about the program itself. Thank you for writing this, and for sharing the link on twitter.

    • Thanks so much Quinn. As you probably know Comic Relief has been around in the UK for almost 30 years so they have absolutely done their due dilligence on the best ways to fund projects. And constantly change the way they do these things. This kind of negative publicity will do untold damage to their fund raising this year which will, ultimately hurt those who need us most. thanks for taking the time to read and comment

  • It’s particularly annoying given that Dooley was apparently investigating what Comic Relief was doing. All large charities need oversight; there have been too many instances of internal corruption or exploitation so we must keep everyone honest. She wasn’t there to play the ‘white savior” at all.

  • I think it’s important to say that fundraising is great and vital, and I love that bloggers have supported great causes in the UK and beyond through some truly brilliant and creative fundraising activities.

    However, I think your statement, “I have never thought about my colour and the role it plays in any of this,” is something that bears closer thought.

    The “White Saviour Myth” doesn’t mean for a second that you personally think that you are saving anyone. It’s saying that the way certain campaigns are structured and disseminated through the mass media perpetuates a visual narrative of helpless brown people being rescued by largely white agencies and charities.

    It’s 2019 and we’re all trying to learn and do better around so many of these issues. We have to think about our privilege and how that affects our experience of an issue. Something that we didn’t think twice about in 2005 might seem completely unacceptable 10 years later. I think what David Lammy and others are saying is that perhaps fundraising now should start to try and provide a platform for people to tell their own stories rather than relying on white people to frame and present their stories.

    Of anyone, I think bloggers and influencers are perfectly placed to share that sort of content, and I hope that in the coming years, we DO see a bit of a shift to people owning and sharing their own stories, wherever they happen to come from.

    • I’m afraid that I agree with Sally. It was that line that bothered me too. And I do think David Lammy has a point. We do tend to perpetuate the myth of the white saviour as it follows our history/societal and political narrative. I must confess that I have rarely donated to Comic Relief because of this. I’m happier supporting locally ie my local food bank and MH community groups. 30 miles is a large area, unless it’s not your area. I think we do need the discussion of skin colour. It’s 2019 now. We need to recognise that what was good intentions 30yrs ago, probably needs to be readdressed.

    • I think this comment is spot on. It would be great to see Comic Relief and other charities start to give people the chance to tell their stories without privileged white people being brought in to use their platforms.

      • Alison I couldn’t disagree more with your last few words if I tried. How do we know that Comic Relief weren’t focussing on that this year? That Stacey Dooley’s films weren’t going to be doing exactly that? So as a “privileged white person” I should just be using my blog and social media for frivolous things. Or just for causes that support other white people?

    • Thanks Sally. I think my quote was a throwaway line, written in haste BUT I do stand by it. I have never seen my colour, or the colour of the other people supporting charities as being relevant. But I do understand your point. And totally agree with your last paragraph. How else do we get the stories out there of what is happening in the world? Let us also not forget that we haven’t seen the footage filmed by Comic Relief this year. We don’t know how the films have been shot. They did vow after the backlash to Ed Sheehan in Liberia a few years ago that they would have people telling their own stories. So it will be interesting to see what this year’s film look like in the hope that we do see those people owning and sharing their own stories.

      • I’m sorry but I think as the person in a place of privilege you need to take a step back and review this statement. Just because you’ve never had cause to think about it, doesn’t mean it’s not a thing. This isn’t a criticism of you wanting to help people but now you know more about the issue; maybe you should go away ad re-evaluate your privilege rather than immediately jumping to your own defence?

  • You seem to have done some really great work to raise awareness but i just want to draw your attention to the danger of the “trope”/ the idea/ perpetuating the idea of these foreigners coming to “tell our stories”.
    There’s a child protection case going on in Uganda now. A white European man, who appeared to have good intentions, set up a charity to help female orphans. He housed, clothed, fed them and then insisted they perform sexual acts for him and his fellow white visitors. He often posed with them in pictures in “promotional material” to raise funds and awareness. But those who were part of his dark paedo world also saw those pics as adverts for what was on offer.
    These girls were abused but voiceless, because the white men spoke for them, promoted them etc. He even secured DFID funds from the UK earmarked for such “charities” because he knew how to tell a good sob story.
    It took so long because people were so comfortable and impressed with pictures of a white man cuddling a poor black nine year old orphan, that no-one questioned him. His fellow foreigners (and you’ll know from your trip to Ghana how foreigners are treated with awe and respect) were praising him and vouching for him, so concerns from locals were not heard.
    This isn’t a unique case. There was that “missionary” boy from UK in South East Asia, I saw it when I worked in Cameroon, Zambia and so many more places. The danger is the mindset it creates, the blindness, the silencing. Not the good individual work you did. No one is mad about that. We just want people to take a step back and look at the larger picture.

Comments are closed.