Comic Relief, Charity and the Elision of Politics

Comic Relief is in the news today due to the imminent transmission of a long-delayed Panorama exposing some of its more dubious activities. Investing in the arms, alcohol and tobacco trades does indeed run so counter to CR’s stated aim of creating “a just world free from poverty” that it beggars belief; in a wider sense though, it’s fairly typical of the rarely-discussed contradictions found in the charity world. Panorama apparently touches on some of these, looking at the activities of other charities including Save the Children and Amnesty International. This particular section about the former organisation struck me:

The programme will also criticise Save the Children, alleging the charity has “self-censored” its criticism of the energy industry so as not to upset potential and existing corporate partners – something the charity denies. “The quest for money is beginning to destroy the mission,” Dominic Nutt, former head of news at Save the Children, told the programme. “Every year I would prepare a line, to go to the media, to criticise British Gas. Every year it would be quashed.”

The relationship between charities, corporate partners and major donors (wealthy individuals) is a complex and, to my mind, deeply problematic one. Much of the time of any charity fundraising department is taken up in wooing these companies and individuals. They are invited to special events, intimate meetings, wined and dined and generally treated as a class apart from the members of the public whose main contact with some of these charities is likely to be having tins or clipboards waved at them in the street. It may be strictly true to say, as the CEO of Save the Children does, that “It is simply wrong and misleading to suggest our silence can be bought.” That’s not, however, because there’s absolutely nothing in the claims that the mission is ‘compromised’ but rather because positioning your charity to be ‘acceptable’ to big money is seen as perfectly ‘natural’. An organisation like British Gas generally wouldn’t have to demand that a charity dropped unfavourable references to them because very few of them would ever venture there in the first place.

In this way the CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility – programmes of big companies and the charitable activities of wealthy individuals serve a far more insidious purpose than just making them ‘look good’. They actively discourage criticism from some of the organisations which should be at the forefront of scrutinising their actions. We may for example read about the activities of the ‘Big 4’ accountancy firms in aiding and abetting tax avoidance and other corporate misdemeanors but you’ll struggle to find a charity which links this to the issues they ostensibly work in – poverty, cuts to services, healthcare and research, international development and so on. This self-censorship is so internalised that it’s not even seen as a guilty secret – rather it’s viewed as ‘grown-up’ campaigning, the Realpolitik of charity work.

A perfect example (and one which has started to be picked up on in the past year) is the involvement of Gary Barlow with Children in Need (and indeed with other charities such as MENCAP.) The former “awards grants each year to organisations supporting disadvantaged children and young people in the UK” while the latter offers support ” to people with a learning disability and their families and carers”. It simply seems impossible for both organisations to separate their missions and values from Barlow’s tax avoidance and support for the Tories at the 2010 election. Both charities have found themselves more necessary than ever due to government cuts to services in recent years; MENCAP has even actively campaigned against government policies. It seems not only mendacious in the extreme but actually harmful to then present Barlow as an apolitical ‘good bloke’ doing his bit for charity. Doing his bit would be paying his taxes and being made to face the consequences of his political decisions.

We saw this too on last weekend’s X Factor where the judge’s panel, including Barlow, got misty-eyed watching a video about the work of Great Ormond Street and Together For Short Lives, both of which will benefit from the winner’s single. X Factor is incredibly calculated in the charities it selects each year, with children and/or the military tending to dominate because both ‘causes’ have the powerful effect of nullifying critical thought. This is particularly strange in the case of Great Ormond Street, where we’re encouraged to ‘dig deep’ to help the sick kiddies. The fact that GOSH is an NHS hospital and as such funded largely by taxes is completely elided. To do otherwise would be to face the unavoidable truth that government cuts and NHS policy have a direct impact on the care of the children we’re invited to coo over; more than that, it would make it seem utterly perverse that we could possibly think buying an X Factor single was the way to help the most vulnerable in society.

Everywhere, then, we find charity actively removing politics from the equation and instead presenting issues as solvable with more money and some polite e-petitions. This is perhaps most striking in the international aid sector where, as the brilliant The End of Poverty documentary makes clear, the role of global capitalism in perpetuating poverty and hunger is hidden from view and we’re instead presented with a continent which is just innately ‘broken’ and only fixable by following Western policies. So we had last Summer’s If campaign presenting e-petitions aimed at the G8 as the ‘solution’ to these issues while the governments in question continue to push neoliberal policies which ultimately harm the cause and maximise the positive publicity resulting from the ‘charitable’ shutting down of criticism.

We have to inject the politics back into charity and be far, far more critical. It’s simply too easy for people and organisations to cloak themselves in the warm blanket of ‘charity’, whether that be Ben Cohen or some naked rowers clearly gaining personally from their vague ‘charitable activities’ or multinationals and governments masking their misdeeds behind banal campaigns. Charities are not and could never be separate from politics – they are politics and we need to understand that the issues they address require political solutions rather than celebrity calendars, talent show singles and scraps from the tables of enormously wealthy financial organisations. If the Comic Relief revelations can open the door to this discussion, they couldn’t have come along soon enough.

I’m E-Petitioned Out

There is now barely a day that goes by without me receiving at least one e-mail inviting me to sign a petition about some issue or another. From the government’s e-petitions to organisations like 38 Degrees and Avaaz and campaigns such as If, we are bombarded with demands to join the movement, pledge to the cause, make the change. They spread quickly and easily across Facebook and Twitter, frequently with the imploring assertion that taking 30 seconds from your life can make a real difference to an issue. I’ve certainly shared them myself – and it’s because of this that I can understand the appeal. It feels more meaningful to share them than to post ironic Youtube videos of American reality shows or pictures of cats. Yet it increasingly seems that the ubiquity of e-petitions is doing more harm than good.

I’ve written before about ‘clicktivism’ and the danger of facile engagement via the internet. There are unfortunately many people who don’t bother to question something if it chimes with and/or suits their own sense of identity. This is nowhere more obvious than in the shallow memes which I wrote about in those two blogs but I think this is also instructive regarding the relationship many have with e-petitions. No matter how well meaning an organisation (or movement) is, no matter how much information they make available, there are going to be a lot of people who sign a petition because they think it sounds ‘right’ and not because they’ve actually bothered to investigate the issue at hand. The startling plethora of petitions which have repeatedly sprung up in the past 18 months or so regarding gay rights in Uganda is a good example. Clearly it was a real issue, yet it was also obvious from much of the rhetoric that many had engaged no further than the few sentences which tended to accompany the petitions. After all, some of the most prominent petition sites had previously claimed to have stopped the bill. Many were unaware that voices inside Uganda and beyond urged extreme caution with regards to public statements and petitions and worried about the clamour to end Western aid to one of the poorest countries in the world. The links between American evangelicals and Ugandan homophobia remained largely unknown, as did Uganda’s history of British colonial rule and Western support for brutal dictators such as Idi Amin when it suited (and indeed current American involvement). The numerous voices arguing that the bill was a diversion tactic (supported by Wikileaks) went almost unheard. Instead there was frequently the sense that people just believed Uganda to be an innately broken, backward country which, when combined with the belief that Westerners spending 10 seconds entering their e-mail address can meaningfully dictate policy there, results in a dangerous, Orientalist fantasy. 

The Uganda Bill petitions were unavoidable for a couple of weeks, much like the even bigger Kony campaign (also Uganda-related) earlier in the year. The Bill, like Kony, is still around – as are the issues of poverty, mortality, gender inequality and more which Uganda faces. Yet the e-petitions have moved on and so our attention has too. It’s difficult, of course, for a privileged white Brit sitting at a laptop to seriously begin to understand some of these issues. In this regard the Uganda Bill was a perfect storm for e-petitions, pushing buttons of identity politics and barbaric African nations without demanding any wider attempts at contextualisation or comprehension, or any thought further than ‘this is bad, my signing this is good’. We should ask ourselves why it feels so instinctively right – why we think ‘well it’s better than doing nothing’ rather than asking ourselves if we truly care and what that would really involve. We would rather have the quick philanthropic buzz of signing it, sharing it and then clicking onto the next Facebook post. It creates the sense of doing something without really doing much of anything.

Petitions are one tool amongst many and they have a place yet their growth seems largely connected to the narcissism and atomisation of social media rather than any increased social awareness or empathy. The new If campaign tackles the enormous and complex problem of world hunger, declaring that joining the campaign can be the “beginning of the end” of the problem. Yet how many people signing up to it will spend any time investigating this issue? More than that, how many will investigate it beyond the uncontroversial platitudes pushed by the supportive celebrities? It’s a campaign which already has the support of the Prime Minister while his government simultaneously exacerbates the problem. This great War on Want statement looks at just a few of the problems with the campaign (which I won’t repeat) but one of its greatest dangers is its idea that we in the West can ‘solve’ world hunger simply by signing petitions to our leaders. We’ve seen time and time again that this doesn’t work. Our leaders rely on the fact that we have a flimsy involvement which will either drift off entirely or be satisfied with some positive sounding announcements (and anyone who doesn’t already know that these will definitely come is naive in the extreme). The If campaign is already guaranteed to be a success on its own terms. In terms of confronting the ‘market forces’, the ‘economic development policies’, the ‘trade liberalisation’, the history of colonialism and exploitation, the continuing Western greed regarding wealth, resources and energy to name but a few major aspects of the capitalist infrastructure, it will be a dismal failure, just as Make Poverty History (which I was an enthusiastic supporter of) ultimately was before it. 

This isn’t an argument in favour of doing nothing, which I’m sure is how some would (will) present it. However it’s most definitely not the case that ‘doing something’ is always better than doing nothing. Sometimes doing ‘something’ is not only completely ineffectual, it’s harmful. It releases the pressure, convincing everyone that something is being done, that everything is fine and all we need is some well-intentioned tinkering to make things better. It pushes the idea that our Western democracies are fundamentally benign and just need to be pushed in the right direction, whether it be ‘saving the NHS’ or ‘saving gay people in Uganda’. If we truly care about these things we need to face the fact that we have a responsibility to engage, to educate ourselves about them, to think about them for more than 30 seconds. We need to ask ourselves why we are so quick to put our faith in petitions and to share them so widely. We need to consider the consequences of  this and of our wider inaction which it arguably facilitates. I’m e-petitioned out.