These pictures don’t help Africa’s poor

Published by The Daily Mail (28th February 2019)

For little more than a decade Stacey Dooley has made all the right steps, moving effortlessly from flogging make-up at Luton Airport to filming hard- hitting documentaries from hot-spots around the world.

She has chased down crooks, confronted jihadists, investigated child sexual exploitation and challenged child soldiers in some of the planet’s toughest corners.

Her charm, her determination and her down-to-earth decency have turned Dooley into something of a national sweetheart — and she was crowned as such when she cruised to sure-footed victory in last year’s Strictly Come Dancing.

Little wonder her biggest fans include many BBC managers sitting at their desks in Broadcasting House, who rave over a young, working-class woman with the ability to connect with ordinary people and deliver mass audiences.

Yet, suddenly, she has hit a hurdle. This week, she found herself at the centre of a storm of criticism after posting images of herself on social media cuddling a bemused-looking child in Uganda while preparing for the next Comic Relief extravaganza. 

An army of critics posted critical comments on Instagram accusing her of indulging in ‘poverty porn’ and exploiting an anonymous child as a prop for promoting ‘the racist idea of white saviourism’, a term used to describe white people who help those in poor places in a self-serving style.

She defended herself robustly, saying: ‘I’ve been working in Africa for 12 years, I ask the locals how I should behave. None of them here are upset with this photo.’

But I am sorry to say that, despite admiring Ms Dooley’s achievements, there are justified grounds for criticism following her decision to jump into bed with Comic Relief.

For this charity has a dismal record of parachuting celebrities into some of the poorest corners on Earth so they can burnish their reputations as saviours while promoting Comic Relief’s deeply flawed world view that aid works and the West knows best.

It is scandalous that our state broadcaster still thinks it’s acceptable to hand over huge slabs of its schedules to push an outdated concept that spraying vast sums of Western cash around the world is an undoubted good.

This row over Stacey Dooley underlines the fact it is not only Nobel Prize-winning economists who challenge our neo-colonial stance on foreign aid (Scottish-born academic Angus Deaton forcefully argues that development aid makes things worse, not better).

Many Africans, especially younger generations, despair when they see famous Westerners using their nations’ problems to polish up their own image.

There was an outcry in Kenya when Comic Relief sent four wealthy celebrities, including the comedian Lenny Henry and former newsreader Angela Rippon, to live in a Nairobi slum for week. Their unsurprising conclusion before they returned to their gilded existences? Life there is a struggle.

Last year, Comic Relief’s boss Liz Warner promised to stop sending stars on its campaign trips after singer Ed Sheeran sparked fury by offering to put some street children in Liberia in a hotel for a few days.

Satires of these charity stunts have gone viral online, where, among others, you will find a scathing film of Africans launching an appeal to send radiators to snowy Norway, and an Instagram site called Barbie Saviour filled with images of the well-dressed doll cuddling babies.

Yet behind such ridicule and the sudden outcry over some well-meaning pictures posted by Dooley, lie serious issues over Western attitudes to Africa and the use of celebrities by a scandal-plagued aid sector to promote its policies and pad its pockets.

After all, what would we think if African stars came into our orphanages to pose for Instagram pictures with infants, if wealthy Asians thought they could spend a few weeks of their gap year teaching in our schools and Latin-American charities told us how to run our hospitals?

The dual problems of poverty porn and this white saviourist mentality are so acute in places such as Cambodia, Ghana and Kenya that an industry of orphanages has sprung up to fleece gullible Westerners and even persuade parents to part with their children.

In Kenya, there are an estimated 45,000 children in 800 registered orphanages — yet, as in several other developing nations, research suggests that the majority of them have parents who are still alive.

Much of the problem goes back to the Band Aid record and the Live Aid concerts that fostered the idea of Africa, in particular, as a helpless morass where ‘nothing ever grows’, a continent so ill-educated that, despite its immense religiosity, the citizens there might not even know about Christmas.

This influenced a generation of politicians who thought they looked compassionate by pouring billions taken from taxpayers into the pockets of Western charities, fat-cat private firms and even despotic regimes —leading to the absurdity of slashing public services here while spending £14 billion a year on dubious projects abroad.

This in turn fostered a self-serving charity sector that became obscenely bloated and covered up horrific scandals — to protect their valuable brands, and used celebrities for stunts to promote simplistic solutions to highly-complex development issues.

Bono, the Irish pop star and pioneer of celebrity aid campaigning, who once arrogantly declared that he spoke for voiceless Africans, has spent decades touring the world to tell governments to spend more of on aid.

Yet his band was accused of tax avoidance after shifting its fiscal affairs from Ireland to the Netherlands — and he was forced to apologise last year after his star-studded organisation One was accused of tax-dodging and harassing its own African staff.

The legacy of the aid boom, of banal celebrity stunts, grasping charities and naive politicians, is the presentation of Africa, with its 54 widely differing nations, as what Labour MP David Lammy termed ‘a single reservoir of poverty, grief and suffering’.

The reality, as Lammy rightly pointed out, could not be more different in so many parts of that fast-changing continent — which is why Africans are angered by the jaded sight of yet another rich Western star dropping in.C

Such behaviour feeds a sentimental belief that good intentions, combined with large dollops of cash, can solve conflict, stop corruption and foster development. Yet it ignores intertwined issues far closer to home that affect development, such as the laundering of dirty money, bungled military interventions and over-restrictive visa policies that frustrate African business and culture.

It also drives a corrosive impression that Africans deserve pity rather than respect. This ceaseless negative stereotyping by charities seeking cash deters businesses and tourists from investing in poor countries and exploring new frontiers.

Britain remains hooked on anachronistic aid policies at a time when other countries from all over the planet are rushing in to trade with the rapidly growing populations of an Africa that is getting better educated, healthier and wealthier each year.

Despite all those desperate pleas from charities for a few more pounds to end all conflict, disease and destitution, this progress is down to the amazing power of capitalism, combined with technology, scientific advance and often local pressure for change.

This is why Stacey Dooley has taken flak for her innocently posted pictures — and why, if we are serious about Global Britain, it is no longer acceptable to send out posses of celebrities to pose with children in poor places.

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