By Vicky Wong
I never quite considered myself a cynic of things like Children in Need and Comic Relief, on the contrary I do quite enjoy it; it’s entertaining and raising money for a good cause at the same time, and every penny if not 70% of every £1 spent on red noses goes to charity. My problem as such isn’t that millions are being raised to save children in Africa from preventable diseases or even to protect vulnerable children who have been abused. My only objection is that things like Comic Relief seem to oversimplify third world problems and the causes of poverty.
It’s hard not to shed a tear at the sight of children in Africa dying from Malaria, and yes prevention is better than cure and that mosquito nets are needed to save countless lives. But mosquito nets only scratch the surface of problems that affect Africa; although abundant in natural resources it’s a continent that is rife with crime, human rights abuses, corrupt governments, frequent tribal conflict and so on. These are matters far more complicated than mosquito nets can solve.
It goes back to the argument really that foreign or charitable aid is not the solution to solving the problems of poverty in Africa. I was actually quite depressed that that evening when Lenny Henry mentioned that Department for International Development, the spawn of Blair’s New Labour years in setting out a more “humanitarian foreign policy”, didn’t get any applause unless prompted.
Recently the Government announced that they would be changing how they delivered foreign aid, which would involve channeling aid through companies who investing in third world countries to use that money to create jobs. Testimony to the notion that the free market solves the problem of poverty and not aid, yet that hardly even got a mention, consigned to nothing more than a citation in the gargantuam of Comic Relief.
Eddie Arthur even put forward an interesting argument about how this notion of giving away free mosquito nets is bad for the African economy. That Africa hasn’t done enough to invest in its human capital means that there is an over-reliance on charitable donations to provide education.
In the ideal world we would need to encourage businesses to be willing to go in and do business in third world countries, and also be willing to train up their labour force and build up their human capital either free or for very little cost to help their economies on the road to growth in tough economic times. Of course idealism can only go so far and economic change needs to sit hand in hand with political reform.
It’s fair to say that the redeeming quality of the defunct Kony 2012 campaign was that it wasn’t a charity asking you to donate money in aid, but to address the fact that the problems in Africa are a lot more complex by drawing on this problem of tribal warfare and child soldiers and exploitation.
However it’s hard to imagine anyone would want to tune into a programme raising awareness of how to promote the free market in Africa, no one would watch it let alone throw money at it. To put it bluntly, economics just isn’t as sexy as seeing Harry Styles weep over children inflicted with Malaria.
Now this is not to say that I think a lot of celebrities only do Comic Relief because for them it is a “vanity project” and I am in no way questionning their good intentions. I just believe that there needs to be some acknowledgement that the problems in Africa are a lot more complex than simply there not being enough protection against malaria.
The anti-climatic conclusion of whether or not supporting Comic Relief is a good or a bad thing is that ultimately as Ellie Mae put it we don’t know. Certainly the redeeming quality of things like Comic Relief is that it shows that people are generous. As Fiona Mactaggart put it poorer people donate more of their income compared to those who earn more, so even in times of recession people are generous. If you do donate then great, good on you, but consider the fact that your £5 is only going to be a small fraction of the solution.