In Depth

Is Comic Relief actually poverty porn?

Spat between Labour MP David Lammy and BBC documentary-maker Stacey Dooley reignites debate over stereotypes

A row between Labour MP David Lammy and BBC documentary-maker Stacey Dooley has reignited the debate over “poverty porn” and the role of charities such as Comic Relief in perpetuating the “white saviour” stereotype.

Lammy had accused Dooley of spreading “tired and unhelpful stereotypes” about Africa after she travelled to Uganda for an upcoming Comic Relief documentary.

The MP for Tottenham “criticised her on Twitter after she shared pictures on social media of her trip including one of her posing with a young child”, reports The Guardian.

The term “white saviour” commonly refers to a white person who acts to help non-white people, in ways that are self-serving.

Lammy also appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, saying: “Charity is a good thing, all of us understand that, but how we do charity is important.”

"Comic Relief is a 20-year-old formula that asks comedians to perform and sends celebrities - most often white - out to Africa, and that image evokes for lots of ethnic minorities in Britain, a colonial image of a white beautiful heroine holding a black child, with no agency, no parents in sight.

"The charity is doing very little to educate the public [about the] emerging middle class in Africa," he added.

The spat began when Lammy responded to pictures posted by Dooley on Instagram, tweeting: “The world does not need any more white saviours... Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.”

Lammy said his issue was not “personal” with Dooley and he did not question her “good motives”.

But he said he had a problem with “British celebrities” being flown out to Africa for Comic Relief to make documentary films that send “a distorted image” of the continent and perpetuate “an old idea from the colonial era”.

Dooley, who has made documentaries for the BBC on a wide variety of topics, responded by suggesting the politician should raise awareness of poverty himself.

She tweeted: “David, is the issue with me being white? (Genuine question) ... because if that’s the case, you could always go over there and try [to] raise awareness?

“Comic relief have raised over 1 billion pounds since they started. I saw projects that were saving lives with the money. Kids lives.”

Lammy’s comments come a year after Comic Relief vowed to tackle the white saviour stereotype.

In 2017, a Red Nose Day film fronted by Ed Sheeran, about street children in Liberia, was named the “most offensive” campaign by a fundraising pressure group.

In it, the singer “was seen meeting a young boy before offering to pay for a hotel for him and his friends”, reports the BBC. The Radi-Aid awards said it was almost “poverty tourism”.

After that Liz Warner, the CEO of Comic Relief, told The Guardian they would change tack.

She said new films would show people “in the first person in their own voices, with local heroes and local heroines talking to us about the work they’re doing. You won’t see a celebrity standing in front of people talking about them”, she said.

Dooley’s Strictly Come Dancing partner Kevin Clifton has come to her defence saying: “some are in desperate need of help. If people are in a position to raise money and awareness why should they not just because they are white? You just can’t win for trying to help.”

But what people who have come to Dooley’s defence “haven’t quite grasped is that Lammy isn’t saying that white people shouldn’t help or travel to Africa at all, rather that they should be weary of the old messages that Comic Relief are reinforcing”, says The Independent’s Habiba Katsha.

“For many children, Comic Relief is their first encounter with Africa”, she writes. “Merely showing people images of poverty means that we only ever see Africa in a negative light.”

Comic Relief said in a statement: “We are really grateful that Stacey Dooley, an award-winning and internationally acclaimed documentary-maker, agreed to go to Uganda to discover more about projects the British people have funded there and make no apologies for this.

“She has filmed and reported on challenging issues all over the world, helping to put a much-needed spotlight on issues that affect people's lives daily.

“In her film, people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words.”

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