I was only able to watch just over an hour of Sports Relief on the BBC last night so I confess upfront that I may have missed the bit where they showed respect for and gave voice to Africans working for a better Africa. The bits I saw (thanks son) were toe-curlingly awful poverty-porn. I don’t want to criticise the commitment of millions of donors or stars such as John Bishop who clearly had genuine empathy and commitment to those they were trying to help. But they were let down badly by the producers and editors who shaped the broadcast. The days of Geldof arguing African artists don’t sell broadcast rights should be behind us.
My Irish friends tell me that things there have improved hugely since early (and successful) Lenten campaigns for the black babies. Irish development NGOs now work to the Dochas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages designed to respect human dignity. I am sure Scottish Development NGOs do something similar but it seems that such concerns do not cover the BBC.
One of the main criticisms of the #Kony2012 campaign was that it simplified issues in a way that was unhelpful and denied Africans a voice or agency in what the solutions should be. Teju Cole wrote a blistering critique in The Atlantic on the White Saviour Industrial Complex. And #Sportsrelief sells us a world of clean £40 donation solutions to sick babies in Africa.
It is not just the simplistic presentation of the problem and solution which ignores the role the West plays in exacerbating poverty and disease in Africa. Arms sales, the brutal rape of Africa by mining and oil companies, corruption, support for “our” dictators, Western drugs companies, trade tariffs, forced privatisation, structural adjustment etc. Not to mention the failure over more than fifty years of the Western development assistance model.
In 1960 when Congo became independent from Belgium it famously had almost no doctors or engineers. Fifty-two years on we still have an aid industry which sends huge numbers of mostly unskilled Westerners to Africa to provide assistance (whilst we entice African doctors to work in Europe). In spite of all the rhetoric about partnership there is little respect to African self-determination or agency.
And this is why it is not good enough to raise £50,000,000 for Sports Relief with pictures of dying babies whilst denying any voice to Africans. One of the things which ran through my head as I watched Sports Relief with my son was whether I would be willing to watch it with any of my African friends. The answer is no. It would be too embarrassing. So why do we accept this?
I don’t want to be just a negative voice on what was a feel good night for all those who made huge efforts to raise funds. But how about Sports Relief sets itself a target to donate at least 50% of the funds to African led and managed agencies. And next time, lets have some African voices on the broadcast, talking about their challenges and achievements.