Capitalising on the Useful Poor

Comic relief has become an industry, its own self-justifying premise. In January this year, BBC2 hosted its Great Comic Relief Bake Off. It had four million viewers, meaning that 16.3 percent of the audience was nabbed between 8pm and 9pm on one specific viewing day. The object of this bakeoff – raising funds for the indigent and needy – were the spectres of the moment.

Comic Relief’s origins were not necessarily intended that way. As its website tells readers, “Comic Relief was launched from a refugee camp in Sudan on Christmas Day in 1985, live on BBC One. At that time, a devastating famine was crippling Ethiopia and something had to be done. That something was Comic Relief.” The paternalist sting, that message of coming to the rescue is notable – the white British hope seeking to fill the impoverished, desperate black void. Assumptions are made: the need to save, the need to help, and the need to identify the suitable victim.

How that void would be filled would be through the deployment of humour, that great salve to encourage people to help the deprived and needy. In making people laugh, British comedians would raise funds to help the disadvantaged. They would coax money out of the moneyed to pass it on to the un-moneyed. “As well as doing something about the very real and direct emergency in Ethiopia, Comic Relief was determined to help tackle the broader needs of poor and disadvantaged people in Africa and at home in the UK.”

Then came the ubiquitous red nose symbol. Comic Relief had found its badge, its advertisement icon for the great push against poverty. The humanitarian clown was born.

The business with the nose and the efforts of Comic Relief effort have started to sour. According to the BBC documentary program Panorama, Comic Relief allegedly invested £150m of funds it raised for a period up to eight years before passing these on to various causes (The Guardian, Nov 29). The documentary has been persistently attacked by various executives in the BBC and various attempts have been made to shelve it. Such efforts have not succeeded – the program is scheduled to run later this month.

The nasty downside here is that the investment gurus of Comic Relief have not been too worried about where the money went: an arms company and even tobacco firms. One can’t place these companies in the orbit of poverty reduction, but the again, those who follow Comic Relief may well argue that some dirt is required to make the roses grow. When investments are on offer, the unscrupulous desire to earn a buck will win through. The documentary, it might be added, also examines the broader charity effort, including Save the Children.

Comic Relief’s statement, for what it’s worth, claimed that it took “the business of making grants and managing the money so generously donated by the public extremely seriously. We’re satisfied that our approach is wholly appropriate and meets all regulatory and legal requirements. We have nothing to hide and publish a full explanation on our website.”

That Comic Relief should find itself in the funding pickle is of little surprise. The humanitarian lobby has, in many instances, become a humanitarian racket, an enclave of moral self-indulgence. It took the revelations regarding the French charity Zoe’s Ark in Chad during 2007 to highlight the various temptations such a pursuit can bring.

In that case, the French charity had decided that the war raging in Darfur had a necessary solution: the smuggling of orphans out of the conflict zone, nabbed from a refugee camp near the Sudanese border, to be transported to France for adoption. Not that the children were asked: there was a moral mission at stake here, there was a war, and French couples were eager to adopt. The authorities in Chad disagreed, arguing that the NGO should have complied with the law of Chad on the issue of adoption. Scandal and criminal charges followed.

Bernard Hours pointed out in 2008, quite rightly, that the suffering subject has become commodified. The outside world sees that subject as victim, an object, in effect, in need of aid. “The ideology behind humanitarian aid depends on three principles. There must be universal human rights – a worthy premise, but problematic. You create victims whom you can save. Then you assert the right to have access to these victims” (Le Monde Diplomatique, Nov 14, 2008).

The deployment of that ideology rapidly strips the suffering individual of humanity and substitutes that suffering with the object of accumulating wealth. This satisfies the impulse for virtue or any other purpose that idealises the victim. The actual reduction of poverty is a distant, subsidiary aim, and it only stands to reason. The disappearance of the victim suggests the disappearance of an industry, the loss of purpose. That could never happen, which means that the creation of victims becomes a permanent, ongoing process.

The dark reality of human rights and the concept of rescue lie in the realm of the political. To ignore that basic principle imperils the task further. And such ignorance in terms of Comic Relief can be colossal. Its proponents stride the stage as agents of commerce and politics, but deny it. The laughing academy can’t be seen to be a political one – at least when it comes to dealing with poverty.

Is every altruistic mission bound to become a utilitarian one based on directed self-interest? The ethicists and philosophes will argue to the ends of the earth on that score. Solutions are unlikely to be found. But the useful poor will not go away. They have become the greatest and most noble distraction for entertainers.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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