By Nikhil Umesh:
This past month, a lot of buzz was generated around Coldplay’s “Game of Thrones: The Musical.” The 12-minute skit was featured on the NBC’s three-hour “Red Nose Day” special, with the charity announcing that over $21 million USD in donations were brought in following Coldplay’s now-viral performance — it has garnered over 10 million views on YouTube.
But perhaps you’re wondering something I’ve been thinking, as well: what exactly is “Red Nose Day“?
Red Nose Day is a telethon which happens every other year in Britain. It is run by Comic Relief, a British charity founded in 1985 with the aim of addressing famine in Ethiopia. The first Red Nose Day was held on February 8, 1988, and since then has raised over one billion pounds in its efforts to alleviate global poverty.
Coldplay’s viral performance happened in conjunction with the first Red Nose Day held in the United States on May 21, 2015. Musicians, actors, and various celebrities were featured on NBC to entertain audiences and encourage them to donate.
The website for Red Nose Day states that it was “…created out of the firm belief that the power of mass media and high-profile celebrities can raise awareness of issues of poverty to change and save millions of lives.”
So, the question arises: is Red Nose Day an initiative worth supporting or would one be better off putting their labours and funds elsewhere?
Comic Relief pays their partnering charities in installments, consequently the money they are withholding is invested to “try and make it into even more money.” In December of 2013, the BBC uncovered that funds amounting to millions of pounds were invested in tobacco, alcohol, and arms. These investments were in clear contradiction to the organization’s purported values in their mission statement, such as helping “people affected by conflict” and “working to reduce alcohol misuse and minimise alcohol related harm.”
The organization’s lack of ethical frameworks for investment is cause for alarm. Divestment, which is the practice of liquidating assets in certain firms due to political, ethical, and financial reasons, has historically been a strategy for creating social change. We can look back to the historical case for divesting from South Africa’s apartheid regime and the current Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) Movement challenging Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Comic Relief states on their website that they work to “tackle the root causes of poverty and social injustice.”
Charity has long been a strategy to alleviate inequities. However, charitable giving should be contextualized and not seen as a silver bullet solution to social injustices. I’d caution against Red Nose Day and Comic Relief touting that they are tackling the “root causes of poverty.” Because their investments seem to indicate they’re rather complicit in upholding oppressive industries and institutions.
Comic Relief’s philanthropic deeds coinciding with shady investments is emblematic of the West’s “White Savior Industrial Complex,” where the well-to-do and their home governments are attempting to “save” Global South nations. Writer Teju Cole, in a controversial series of tweets in 2012, fired one off saying that: “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
“The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” a book by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, argues that we need to deepen our imaginations and envision social change that is not beholden to corporatist ideals and praxis: large philanthropic foundations that control capital and decide where and to whom money will be given.
Instead, getting to the roots of problems will require grassroot social movements, and not the sedation of struggles against exploitative transnational corporations and corrupt governmental regimes.
But I believe we can be political in the way and to whom we give. Capitalism isn’t ending soon, and given already existing class hierarchies, wealth redistribution must be on the agenda.
Alok Vaid-Menon, a U.S. based queer South Asian artist, writes of the need for those of us who are class-privileged to redistribute money to social movements: “We can all sit around and discuss our dreams of capitalism somehow imploding but the reality of the situation is it’s still probably going to be here tomorrow. Oppressed communities are still going to need resources. Queer people and people of color are not just concepts, critical theories, or abstractions – they are communities of people who can benefit from material support.”
So, for those of us who have the capacity to give, please do so. But let’s make sure money is channeled to working class social movements, individuals experiencing multiple and interlocking forms of oppression, and all those who are challenging hegemonic systems, rather than corporate initiatives preoccupied with doling out your “good deed of the day” certificate.