By Sophie Davies
British charity Comic Relief said on Wednesday that it will stop sending celebrities to Africa to raise funds following criticism that figures like singer Ed Sheeran acted like “white saviours.”
The charity won a Norwegian advocacy group’s Rusty Radiator Award for the worst appeal of 2017 for a video about street children in Liberia, where Sheeran offered to pay their hotel bills, criticised as “poverty tourism” by the jury.
“African people don’t want us to tell their stories for them, what they need is more agency, a platform and partnership,” comedian Lenny Henry, co-founder of Comic Relief, said in a statement.
“Diversity and inclusion is important both in front and behind the camera. Times have changed and society has evolved, and we must evolve too,” said Henry, who has spoken out about the lack of ethnic diversity in British media.
A string of British celebrities – from Oscar-winning actress Olivia Coleman to Olympic champion Mo Farah – have been engaged by aid groups to champion their causes.
Since the media rallied to cover the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in the United States and the Black Lives Matter protests, questions have been raised about diversity and unconscious bias in film and television.
Although celebrity-led appeals helped Comic Relief raise 1.4 billion pounds over the years, it has come under fire for what critics reject as outdated images of poor children suffering.
Comic Relief was lambasted last year by Black opposition lawmaker David Lammy for online photos of television presenter Stacey Dooley holding a Ugandan child on a visit to the east African country to see the charity’s projects.
Lammy, who is of Guyanese descent, said the images evoked negative stereotypes about Africans as pitiful victims who rely on white people for help, rather than equals to be respected.
Comic Relief said it was starting to work with Africa filmmakers, instead of Western celebrities, by supporting local organisations, like the East African documentary film fund Docubox, to promote African talent.
“It’s the time for young black and brown filmmakers to have the platform to tell their version of stories in Africa,” Henry said in emailed comments.
Comic Relief said that local filmmakers will direct all new African films for its Red Nose Day 2021 fundraising campaign, starting with a series of short films by African filmmakers launched on Wednesday.