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 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. I have never thought about my colour and the role it plays in any of this. Nor have I thought about it with any of the people who have joined us on our fund raising over the years (to date Team Honk has raised in excess of £80,000 for Comic Relief). 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.