We need to talk about these celebrity charity videos – 5 lessons for the tone-deaf
I like Ed Sheeran. He’s a good guy with sick tattoos who croons a nice tune.
Which makes it a little ironic that he would go and make such a tone-deaf charity video for the good folks over at Red Nose Day.
I realize that a critique like the one you’re about to read is bound to raise the hackles of some folks, who will say, “At least he’s doing SOMEthing Craig. His heart’s in the right place. Leave Ed alone!”
So, let me start by saying, this is nothing personal, Ed, and Red Nose people. And I like where you're coming from. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the lives of our most vulnerable global citizens are literally at stake here. This video is not just a harmless fundraising puff piece. It spreads a message that is misleading and unhelpful.
So, can I suggest that we all use this Red Nose Charity Fundraiser as an opportunity to learn and to examine ourselves? It's 2018 and we can do better than this. That’s the spirit in which this blog post is intended.
Right. For starters, check out the video and have a think about what story it tells you about the people featured – before you read my thoughts below. I’ll wait…
OK, seen it?
Ed Sheeran sings, "God gave me a stage, a guitar and a song." So, let's see how Ed might use that stage, his platform, to bring a message that will be more responsible. Here are 5 lessons to help us reflect on how this video could be better constructed...
Lesson #1 - Balance the story of tragedy with the story of resilience
Did you notice how the children are portrayed in this video? Ed paints them as helpless victims waiting to be rescued. This is only one step above the fly-blown, swollen-belly, African victim videos we learnt were not cool in the 1980’s.
Here’s the problem. There’s no nuance in the one-sided story he presents about who these kids are and the lives they live. The opening images show the boys lying in vulnerable postures, representing the pain and suffering of their lives, which is PART of the truth. But it’s not the WHOLE truth. You see, the other part of the story is that these kids are survivors, they are resilient and they are actually pretty damn strong.
Let me give you an example. I’m currently walking alongside two local boys aged 8 and 10 who sleep in a makeshift shelter 500 metres from my house. Vin and Vit are out on the streets every day collecting cans and bottles to recycle for cash, which feeds their family. They live lives of incredible suffering, and I could easily tell their story to emphasise how pathetic and needy they are. But Vin and Vit show incredible resilience and ingenuity in the face of that suffering. There is also joy, hard work, perseverence and courage. To tell their story fairly I need to represent both those sides of the coin.
When we share stories about people in poverty, let's make sure we give everyone, even little boys living on the streets of Liberia or Cambodia, the dignity of being represented as whole, complex, even courageous human beings, instead of just caricatures waiting to be rescued. Otherwise, we marginalize them all over again.
Lesson #2 - Don’t oversimplify the problem
Not many of us would jet into a place of poverty and immediately declare, “Let’s put these street kids in a hotel until we can get 'em sorted” I love the simple black and white world Ed lives in. His message is, this is not a complex situation, I can throw a few bucks at the problem and it’ll be sorted out. Rent a house, hire an overseer, and we’re away laughing. Let’s do it!
I wish it were so, Ed. I wish it were so. But if there is one thing street-involved children almost all have in common, it is the complexity of their problems and the difficulty of seeing change in their lives.
Once I got to know my neighbours, Vin and Vit, more deeply, I began to notice that their mother was a chronic alcoholic. I started to see that both Vin and Vit are struggling with learning disabilities and find it hard to concentrate or sit still - probably the result of fetal alcohol syndrome. Their lives are complex and multi-layered. As a family they have had suitable housing in the past but the addiction and related behavior meant they were kicked out.
Children like Vin and Vit are often dealing with (or fleeing) awful, violent home contexts. They may have substance abuse issues themselves. They may be struggling with trauma from abuse or neglect, or they may be part of a gang that is exploiting them.
Simply plucking them off the streets is not going to be a magic bullet to solve all the emotional, social, economic, and spiritual issues that they face. Providing housing may well be part of a multi-layered solution but it’s not the easy fix presented in this video.
Lesson #3 – Open your eyes to systemic issues
After recognizing that the problems children like Vin and Vit face are more complex than simply a lack of money, we also need to see that the causes of poverty are much wider, and more systemic.
When I met them a year ago, Vin and Vit had not been going to school. No worries I thought, I’ll get them enrolled. So, I took them down to enroll in the bare concrete-block school with a dirt field at the end of our lane.
At the end of the first day in class, Vin and Vit came by my house to play with our Lego and grab a bite to eat. “How was school today?” I asked hopefully.
Vin and Vit both looked at the ground, “The teacher made us stand by the blackboard the whole lesson with our hands on our heads because we didn’t have any money to give her.”
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but this is a common practice in Cambodia. Teachers will force their students to pay a little money each day to supplement their pitiful wages (which are partially stolen by those higher up in the chain). If kids don’t pay up, there are all kinds of punishments.
That right there is a Systemic Issue – widespread corruption, that is like a cancer in places like Cambodia and Liberia.
Other Systemic Issues operate at an international level. For example, the amount given in aid to Africa is dwarfed by the annual wealth plundered out of Africa by cheating multi-nationals and opportunistic governments.
Aisha Dodwell, a campaigner for Global Justice Now, says, “There’s such a powerful narrative in western societies that Africa is poor and that it needs our help... what African countries really need is for the rest of the world to stop systematically looting them."
Lesson #4 - See beyond the dollars
By now, you’re probably realizing that the simple solution offered in Ed’s video – to give a little cash – is not going to be the miracle cure we might have hoped for. Poverty is much more complex than just a lack of money.
Living in consumeristic societies, we’ve come to believe that money makes the world go around. We think we can buy almost anything – including the quick transformation of poverty and injustice. But we can’t. And our charity messaging needs to be more truthful in that regard.
Sure, money will help sometimes, in the right hands. But money doesn’t change hearts, break addictions, heal abuse, reconcile families, transform oppressive structures, or bring spiritual transformation. Money has a part to play, but it is not the cure-all we often think it is.
Lesson #5 - Don’t paint yourself as the hero
Once you come to terms with the complexity of the poverty factors outlined above, it’s almost laughable that a celebrity would make a video in which they are the white saviour quickly and easily “solving poverty” in the lives of five children.
Yes, there are heroes to be found in this story – complex and flawed heroes, but heroes nonetheless.
Those heroes are not celebrities.
The heroes are people working tirelessly to transform dirty rotten systems. The heroes are government workers who refuse to compromise their integrity. The heroes are single mothers trying to keep their kids under one roof, without any help at all. The heroes are these boys who keep an eye out for one another on the street and survive against all odds.
So let’s recognize the real heroes, and come alongside them, strengthen their hands, see the complexity of the challenges they face, and work in solidarity to make the world a better place.
It's right to weep over a situation of brokenness as Ed does. It's good to want to respond.
"When Jesus drew near, having seen the city, He wept over it, saying that “If you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!" Luke 19:41-44
Don't be cynical. Weep. Let the tears fall. Then pray for the insight to engage with wisdom. To tell the story fairly. To respond with depth and intregrity instead of quick fixes. And to hold onto hope.
For the kids.