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David Lammy is wrong about white saviours and Comic Relief

18 March 2019

4:54 PM

18 March 2019

4:54 PM

Comic Relief have reported an £8 million plunge in year-on-year donations following the recent row ignited by Labour MP David Lammy accusing the charity of propagating the ‘white saviour’ complex. To be clear, there is no hard evidence proving the shortfall a direct fallout from Mr Lammy’s critique.

It is, however, hardly conceivable the negative emotions ignited by his ‘white saviour’ accusations would have no impact on the public’s willingness to continue funding the charity. As someone born and raised in Nigeria, I feel compelled to address Mr Lammy’s comments about Africa and the ‘white saviour’ complex, pointing out why I consider his approach wrong and counter-productive.

First off, I know Mr Lammy is right when he says many black Britons are ‘deeply uncomfortable’ with images of African poverty beamed around the globe by western charities like Comic Relief. I have felt uncomfortable with such images myself. I’ve irritatedly changed the channel or deliberately looked away from giant billboards displaying desperate-looking African children. I’ve rolled my eyes at white celebrities soliciting donations for Africa, scoffing to myself it’s just PR.

But one day, I asked myself why exactly these images got me so worked up. After all, as someone who grew up in Nigeria, I knew this represented the general reality for the majority of children in a country where two out of three people live in poverty. Fortunate enough to have been born into the country’s small middle-class, I myself never experienced hunger or lacked the basic necessities of life. But I knew most people in Nigeria, which is one of the better-off African countries, are authentically poor. So why did those images annoy me?

They annoyed me because I knew they helped shape perceptions of how people viewed me outside Nigeria. It is Africa’s privileged classes and its diaspora who come into regular contact with people of other races and nationalities. It is we who attend international conferences, go to western universities or simply live in the west.

Naturally, we want to be treated as equals by those we encounter in these international settings. No one likes being patronised. So people with backgrounds like mine or Mr Lammy’s often get peeved at pictures of starving African children because they know this helps shape how they themselves will be perceived in the west – as people associated with a poor and unsuccessful continent. It is this association with failure that many blacks in the west, especially successful blacks, find particularly infuriating. Hence Mr Lammy emphasized a ‘growing African middle-class’ in an interview with Victoria Derbyshire, despite the reality this group constitutes at most a quarter of the African population. This is not a glass half-full/half-empty question; it is whether we focus on the glass being three-quarters empty or a quarter full.

What complicates matters more, psychologically, is an awareness among black people that the incessant portrayals of hunger, violence and dysfunctionality in Africa, however well-intentioned, help nurture the racist-colonialist narrative of Africans being generally incapable of efficient self-government, of needing white people to help us sort things out, hence the ‘white saviour’ slogan. Again, this is particularly frustrating for successful blacks in the west who feel individually no less capable than their white counterparts. Yet Africa’s failures continue to cast an uncomplimentary shadow they can’t seem to shake off.

So in an era of obsession with ‘narrative’, it’s small wonder some black folk in the west are more concerned with the perceptions of Africa than with the realities of Africa. They find images of suffering Africans annoying because these ‘perpetuate negative stereotypes’ as Mr Lammy suggested. The actual suffering elicits less outrage then the fact it is being exposed for the world to see.

But like it or not, there are 237 million Africans currently suffering from ‘chronic undernutrition’, according to the United Nations. That’s four times the population of Britain. Worse, this number is on the rise. Unfortunately, some genuinely impressive GDP growth rates in African countries over the past decade has not generally translated into better living standards for the majority. Extreme poverty continues to rise in sub-Saharan Africa, affecting half the population. My father’s land, Nigeria, now has the most people living in extreme poverty in the world.

Yet, is it really the case that some of us who live comfortably here in the west want to wish away all this suffering because we don’t like how it makes us look? Is a more selfish and self-absorbed stance imaginable?

Yes, I know there are genuine racists out there who view these images of African poverty as welcome justification of their prejudices and feelings of superiority. I know there are those who smirk this is ‘proof’ the colonialists were right all along. But am I to let my frustration at the existence of such people push me into a defensive denialism about the disgraceful conditions most Africans live in? No way.

We can’t wish away the reality of today’s Africa just because it makes some of us here in the west feel uncomfortable. Africa’s image is not its main problem, its reality is. Only true material change and economic prosperity for the many can bring about a lasting and deserved image change. But before that happens, those 237 million people need all the help they can get. So, if you stopped donating to Comic Relief because of what Mr Lammy said, please ignore his denialism. This is not about him or even about the rest of us black folk here in Britain. It is about those who genuinely need help. Their suffering is more important than my image.


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