John Walker's Electronic House

by on Mar.28, 2005, under The Rest

Change The World 7

I recently wrote an essay discussing how I believe our attitude toward matters of social justice is driven by an unchallenged capitalist mindset, whereby we donate money in return for product. It’s something I wanted to write about here as well.

I find it easiest to explain and refer to as “Comic Relief Syndrome”. Comic Relief raises a fair amount of money. It’s tempting to see the number 37 million and be overwhelmed by it, but we are a generation caught between “million”‘s shift from vastness to mundanity. Look at house prices – it is only a short time before most home owners will be “millionaires”, and the number loses the rest of its power. However, compare that to the response to the tsunami, and Comic Relief’s figures start to look a lot smaller. I’ll come back to that.

Comic Relief says, “We will dance for you, if you give us your money.” But no one watching falls for this. They know the dancing will continue whether they donate or not. The reality is, “If they will dance for me, I might give them some money.” It’s cash in return for product. Then Comic Relief says, “Look at the dying people, give them your money.” But few watching respond to this. Instead it is, “If I pay some money, you will take the images of the dying people away.” We are paying for the unpleasantness to be removed, so we do not need to feel guilty about it. And it’s no secret – Comic Relief knows this and works toward it. Alternating popular celebrities and one-off sketches from comedies of the zeitgeist with films showing intense poverty and hardship ensures the audience is kept in a constant emotional turmoil, until eventually some money is donated or the television is switched off.

That works – it raises money. I don’t condemn it for this. However, what it is the result of, and what it results in, I now think I do. I have attempted to teach issues of social justice in my youth groups. When trying to think of a way to approach the subject, the most immediate and obvious method was to encourage the young people to organise fundraising events for causes that meant something to them. My instinctive choice was to approach the problems through money. But not only that, the next stage was to find a way of raising money that the young people would find entertaining and involving. I have been teaching the same model: cash in return for product.

Money is needed, obviously, and my argument is not to condemn fundraising. It is, however, very much to condemn fundraising without education. I keep returning to Comic Relief as it is both recently in people’s minds and enormously typical of the problem. Comic Relief could not be more guilty of failing to achieve this. There is no education whatsoever. Just guilt, entertainment, and spending. The films show the deprevation, the misery, the pain and the suffering of people all over the world. But they never explain the causes. Why are those people starving to death? Why isn’t their government feeding them? Which war with which nation is diverting funds? And how many pounds worth of arms are the UK selling to that country? Here’s betting it’s more than £37 million.

What I want to argue for is a massive step away from fundraising, and a massive step toward education. I believe that if people knew the realities of the situations, they would find themselves reaching for their wallets anyway. Think this is delusional? Look at the response to the tsunami. Certainly there are dozens of factors that need consideration, but at some point it must be recognised that a world was educated about a situation, and fought to find ways to respond. Far more than £37 million was raised in the UK, and without Lenny sodding Henry’s shrieking gibberish, or Graham Norton’s squealing at Jack Dee’s bored face. Billy Connolly didn’t need to not-quite-swear from a shanty hospital. People just did stuff, shops did stuff, charities did stuff, and eventually the celebrities found ways for them to do stuff in public. And more importantly, people didn’t only respond by throwing their wallets at the problem. Oxfam were having to issue press releases asking people not to volunteer themselves to the project unless they had previous disaster-recovery experience. They were inundated with people wanting to give up their time and skills.

What if Comic Relief included education? What if everyone involved in social justice focussed on consciousness raising, rather than fund raising?

Because giving money is applying bandages. Bandages are necessary. But far better than putting on bandages is preventing the wounds in the first place. And that doesn’t happen by donating a fiver because Jonathan Ross looked quite serious for a moment. It happens by changing lifestyles, changing attitudes, and making a very loud noise in the right place.

We surely must stop perpetuating the notion that charitable donations require a product in return, but even more, we need to learn why the money is needed in the first place. Oxfam will tell you. Tearfund will tell you. Shelter will tell you. Amnesty will tell you.

Meanwhile, this gets halfway there. The new Sarah McLachlan video, World on Fire, cost $15 to make, from its budget of $150,000.

World On Fire

The video explains where the money would have gone, and where it did go. Yes, it’s still about the money, but crucially this video specifically states, “Don’t worry, we are not asking for money”, and indeed they do not. There is no, “How can I donate” button on the site, but instead a list of the organisations their money went to, and their contact details. There’s no easy, ‘pay to make it go away’ option. This is education.

11 Comments for this entry

  • Lewis

    Comic Relief did that to an extent, though, didn’t it, in ’92? That was solely about educating. There was no fund raising that year.

  • antichaos

    I really don’t think that the tsunami was an example of education = money given. I think that people were more willing to give because it was nobody’s fault. If people are told that many of these social problems are really due to government corruption and arms sales and the like, I would think that would make them less likely to give, not more.

  • Steve

    Antichaos raises an interesting, if flawed, line of reasoning. If you choose not to give money to Comic Relief because the plight of a populace has been caused by a tinpot dictator, or years of shady Western foreign policy, then that’s between you and your conscience. At least it’s an honest choice. We deserve to make informed decisions based upon full knowledge of the facts. Anything else is misleading and ultimately self-defeating.

  • Lewis

    Which, I suppose, is John’s point all along.

  • Steve

    Well, yes. I was more refuting Antichaos’ (ha, if that is your real name) point than either adding to or disputing John’s.

  • John

    Gently folks, this isn’t Bemli.

    But yes, I think Steve makes the right point. I would rather people made educated choices than ignorant ones. David’s point that people would be put off if faced with the politics, I think, assumes that it would be communicated in the same way such things are now. If it were to be presented in an absorbable manner, I think it could make a far greater difference.

    Also, I’m not prepared to pander entirely to the stupid. As an example, I have a far greater understanding of the issues in Turkey because I went to Mark Thomas’ lecture/stand up about the matter. I care more, and communicate this information to others in a more effective manner, because of it. Certainly a damn site better than I would if someone had stuck a bucket in my face in a pub, and said, “Help the Kurds in Turkey,” and I’d chucked in a quid to make them move on, for instance. To suggest that I would be more put off from donating is incorrect. I suggest that the masses would be is presumptious.

    We deserve such knowledge.

  • Rhys

    Yes, I agree. Worth noting, too, that while Comic Relief might major on the ‘don’t go down to the pub tonight, please’ school of fundraising, it has tied in with Make Poverty History to a large extent this year. And that’s all about getting people educated on the issues, persuading them to campaign in some way (everything from a line of Javascript upwards…) and thus educating people themselves as a result. I can’t help but like that philosophy.

  • John

    I agree that it’s great Comic Relief have allied with Make Poverty History. However, I wish they’d have said so on the programme, and explained what it meant.

  • chalky

    overwhelming agreement. I did have one slight issue with the Tsunami efforts though, which ties in very much with the flavour of your words on knee-jerk guilt type responses. The stats (?from make poverty history I think) add up to the death toll from poverty (OK, so I don’t know exactly how they worked it out… and I will go back and check the details sometime!) being the equivalent of one Tsunami every 6 days – I hugely support the Tsunami relief efforts etc, people being moved to give money and time to others is never going to be bad, but again it felt to me like a glorified telethon at times. I think it’s true that people are more likely to give when it’s one heck of a bad disaster which happened on a particular day than things just being wrong and bad and leading to poverty and loss of life on a structural daily this-is-how-it-is basis. I also think educating people is the key and I don’t think becoming more informed about a situation of injustice is likely to put people off engaging with it financially or otherwise (as in, agreeing with Steve etc). Actually if anything I’d think it would help people to understand that there is in fact more to be done than simply giving money. Errr… I’m agreeing though, joining in really. Sorry it became a rant (and thanks for the link, wibsiters)

  • John

    Yes, my anger at the response to the tsunami is a whole other rant.

    The hypocrisy of the reaction is infuriating. However, this must be tempered with the truth that at least people did something *this time*, no matter how galling and wretched it feels when compared to how people will do nothing *most of the time*.

    However, I think it still stands as a very useful example. Yes, it became like a glorified telethon, but it was a telethon of the people’s making. The independence of the initiative would appear to have been caused by the ‘education’ of the story’s presence on our news.

    I also think the scale was manageable by people’s minds. It was vast, horrific, but comprehendable. That similar numbers of deaths are happening daily due to poverty is not. It’s beyond comprehension. And at that point people lose the ability to believe they can affect or change it. Getting around this should be the focus of the Make Poverty History campaign’s consciousness raising efforts.

  • John

    I forgot to respond to Lewis’ original point.

    Yes, I wrote more about the original Comic Relief in my essay. It did indeed begin as a massive educational initiative, supported by comedians too angry that people weren’t helping to know what else to do. Their drive and passion led them to create. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I don’t get the impression that it is this that powers Graeme Norton and Jonathon Ross to the studios every other March.