dear comic relief

Don't take this the wrong way, but your handling of the David Lammy vs Stacey Dooley interaction over her instagram selfie with an Ugandan child was pretty poor. I don't doubt that you have good intentions and have done many good deeds for those who need help, as do your representatives. However, I think it is time you accept that you are part of a bigger, and not always pretty, picture that you should not only be aware of but actively be part of to move forward. After all, it is 2019. After having read articles on this directly shared by friends, with messages like "Have you seen this?" and "What do you think?", I realised that I had a lot to say about this subject and have decided to explore it to explain where I'm coming from and why I have decided to write to you.

Disclaimer: this is not an anti-charity post, nor is it a fully formed solution for the future of charities and philanthropy in general, rather it is an exploration of the topic and another point-of-view which can hopefully kick-start a conversation of change and stronger regulation of charitable activities.

I don't want to write you an essay so I will try to summarise my thought-process and main take-outs which I hope you'll take the time out to digest and act upon.
  • I am grateful that Lammy has called this out, because it has opened up a discussion we all need to face into more often, openly and without judgement. 
  • Dooley is not a bad person, she of all people has seen the world and its struggles more than the average Brit.
  • You need people like Dooley, like all charities you need to raise funds and celebrities are a widely known and accepted way to not only reach a big audience but also encourage that audience to dig into their pockets for £1 or two (after all, who wouldn't support a Strictly winner who won the nation's heart over with great dancing and the great work she does as a documentary-maker). I understand, this is marketing / fundraising at its core.
  • But Lammy has highlighted an important point, to him and many others, so you should listen before responding in an appropriate way. I don't know his exact point-of-view on charity work, but calling him out for not responding to your offers to volunteer while Dooley had is not the most thoughtful or end-of-discussion response in this scenario.
  • Charity, whether you like it or not, is a structure created by Western society so deeply embedded and institutionalised that it is no longer a black-and-white transaction between peoples and cultures. It is extremely complex and continuously evolving.
  • Dooley's instagram photo, whether either of you like it or not, is super-charged with complex messages from the controversial history of a minority ethnic diaspora in the UK - many have been dubbing it "white saviourism" which I feel is a term now increasingly synonymous with "western saviourism" - something I myself have had to learn and am still learning, and I'm not white (just to clarify, given Dooley's response to Lammy's comment was: "David, is the issue with me being white? (Genuine question").
  • This is not on Dooley or you alone, we are all responsible as citizens of the West to (1) be aware of the structure we're part of, which we might not always explicitly see, and challenge it when its impact fundamentally needs to change and (2) recognise that whenever our culture interacts with another, whether it's travel, charity, or otherwise, it is our basic human duty to respect, understand without judgement, and act sensitively in these circumstances.
You have an important role to play, as do all other charities, in both demonstrating the work that you do as well as educating those that follow your work on the most appropriate ways to support you. Unfortunately, this particular time didn't pan out that way - but I hope in future it will.

Kind regards,


πŸ’Œ Charity ● Before I get into this, it's important we begin from a neutral starting point.

Charity (noun)
1. An organisation set up to provide help and raise money for those in need.
2. The voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.
3. Kindness and tolerance in judging others.

Aid (noun)
1. Help, typically of a practical nature. (a) Financial or material help given to a country or area in need. (b) A source of help or assistance.
2. Help or support (someone or something) in the achievement of something.

Philanthropy (noun)
1. The desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.

πŸ’ Giving back. ● It is something I try and prioritise as part of my #LifeGoals. I have absolutely no judgement if you do or you don't, and I also am absolutely not trying to use this Comic Relief topic to guilt you into doing so. Philanthropy I've come to realise is a very personal choice, whether you do it in private or publicly - and it is influenced by many factors from your level of self-awareness, to your background, to your current financial situation. I'm sure many of you have heard the phrase: before you help others, you must first help yourself - which is logical. Why do you think they say "please put on your oxygen mask on first before helping others"? Because if you didn't, you wouldn't be able to help anyone else. There is no hard and fast rule for giving back, it's highly linked to personal circumstance, choice and priorities.

Charity/Aid is a complex topic, and my personal experiences from the last decade guide how I like to approach it. Helping others is also something I care deeply about - particularly around finding the best way to harness it and getting the result an initial good-thought intended. Not all forms of aid are black-and-white. It sits firmly in that beautiful grey area which many people either avoid facing into or feel lost at where to even start, which results in a spectrum of individual engagement from none/minimal ("I give money") to high ("I am fully embedded into a community and invested (time, resources and energy) in its growth"). What I'm about to share with you are short stories from my life and insights learnt so far in my journey. I am not an expert in this field and I won't pretend to be, but hopefully these stories can help others to start a constructive conversation between us all on the role and responsibility of charity or aid work - as it has done in my family and friendship circles recently. After all, we are all continuously under-construction.

S T O R Y O N E πŸ˜³ ● been there, done that

As the Comic Relief debate began without my knowledge, I was sat in the canteen at work talking about a colleague's first experience in India over lunch. My colleague (Italian male) had been recommended by another colleague (Indian female) who had worked in our offices in Dehli to either get an Uber (approx. £6) or the tube (less than £1) to the office on his arrival. Contrary to her advice, he ended up taking a taxi, from a man who had approached to help, which he later realised had cost him just over 3 times the earlier suggested Uber. When we challenged his decision (as it feeds into the distortion of tourist taxi prices after him), the response (understandably) was "It was £30 - that's the same price as a taxi in London, I can afford it, plus it was the driver's son's birthday the next day so I helped him out". I have found that this is a pretty standard Western reaction when first travelling to a "developing" country - and I hate to admit that I've been there. When you come from a "developed" country, it's an oddly logical reaction. Why wouldn't I pay him more? I physically can, and the extra money may be able to help her or him out, etc. Unfortunately, all of this comes from both a place of privilege and guilt. We may not admit it to ourselves, but it is a toxic combination which can lead to irrational decisions.

My understanding of this delicate dance where two cultures meet has only really fully bloomed over the last 3-4 years. In my youth, despite the number of visits I'd made to Madagascar, it wasn't a concept I was fully aware of, or could consciously harness my behaviours around. I was aware "I was lucky" (whatever that means) and "we had relatively more money" than the average Malagasy - but my parents aren't the western definition of rich (hello cigars, champagne on my Rolex, and trips to Dubai to buy out the Versace store) - in actual case far from it. Having said this, my drive to give back to others I now realise more and more stems from both this sense of guilt (in my "luckiness") but also of appreciation (in being consciously aware and content with what I actually have). Essentially, it's a brain balancing act. At the base of it, moving from Madagascar to England meant I went from having a few things (probably all I needed, to some schools of thought) to ALL OF THE THINGS (oh hello capitalism). Having all of the things then meant when I saw people having to work really hard on my travels in Madagascar, my immediate reaction was HELP THEM

S T O R Y T W O πŸ’ ● you'll cause a ripple

Rewind to four years ago. I was on a typical road trip in Madagascar with mum and family exploring the highlands of the Merina and Betsileo peoples. I can't quite remember where we were but mid villages, I noticed a stoic woman, perhaps in her 40s, in a long blue dress, open tattered shirt, wide brimmed straw hat, barefoot, resting on the side of the road, with two large bags of charcoal by her side, trying to catch her breath. We decided to pull over because I needed an ako-with-a-view - mum had spotted a good hiding place and said that she could chat to the lady while I did ma thang (she's a very sociable and inquisitive woman). Once I was done, we got back in the car, and I noticed the lady pick up the big bags of charcoal, hoisting them onto her head. She still looked tired, and still barefoot.

CathiaπŸ‘©πŸ½‍πŸ”§: "Mum"
MumπŸ•΅πŸ½‍♀️: "Yes darling"
πŸ‘©πŸ½‍πŸ”§: "Where is she going? Is she ok?"
πŸ•΅πŸ½‍♀️: "Yes, she's fine. She's just taking the coal to the village we've just left to try and sell them before it gets dark."
πŸ‘©πŸ½‍πŸ”§ (looking concerned): "How much are her bags of coal?"
πŸ•΅πŸ½‍♀️ (looking confused): "We don't need coal, we've got enough at home."
πŸ‘©πŸ½‍πŸ”§: "Well, can I just give her money for them and then she doesn't have to go? She can just go back home in time to her family."

The village we'd just left was about 45 mins drive away (probably about 1.5h on foot), and the village we were driving towards was another 30 mins. It was about 3.30pm, and as far as I was concerned, my logic was foolproof - I could help this lady out, couldn't I?

πŸ•΅πŸ½‍♀️: "Darling... you don't need to do that."
πŸ‘©πŸ½‍πŸ”§: "But mum, I can" (starts opening up her bumbag to look for money)

At this point the lady had already continued her walk in the opposite direction to us.

πŸ‘©πŸ½‍πŸ”§: "Look, she's not far, I can run to her and that way she can go home!" (exasperated)
πŸ•΅πŸ½‍♀️: "Darling, no."
πŸ‘©πŸ½‍πŸ”§: "Why?"
πŸ•΅πŸ½‍♀️: "You can give her money if you really want, but you should know the impact of you doing that."
πŸ‘©πŸ½‍πŸ”§: "What do you mean?"
πŸ•΅πŸ½‍♀️: (hesitates as she hears my need to help in my voice) "Well... if you give her the money. She will no longer walk to the next village. The next village then won't get their coal, and she will go home learning that passing cars may have non-locals in them who are prepared to just give out money."

I quickly shut my mouth. And my bumbag.
Five minutes later, we passed a father and son (about 4 years old) carrying similar bags of coal - the lady's competitors, and I had nearly slowed her down.

Mama-bear had taught me an impactful and long-lasting lesson that afternoon. It's now 4 years later, and I can still visualise the situation as clear as if it had been this morning. This has now become one of my mental checks every time I travel or when I do something for others. I am not the be-and-end-all answer. My money isn't the only solution either. My intention may be good, but my actions have to be consciously and sensitively led. This particular lesson reinforced that age old notion that every action has a ripple effect. If mama-bear hadn't been there and spelt it out for me like that, I would have 100% just given the money and driven away thinking I'd done a good deed (oh what a great human). 

S T O R Y T H R E E 🌾 rice for wheat

More recently, on my last trip to Madagascar (with my first ever pals to visit ☺️), I found myself in a debate with a British chap working for the WFP (World Food Programme) in the wifi zone / reception courtyard of our beach hotel in Ifaty (South-West coast). This gentleman was staying at the hotel as part of a bigger delegation from the WFP who were hosting a conference at the hotel whilst we were there (bless Nic & Al who's room was next to their meeting room). One evening, after a day exploring Reniala baobab and spiny forest, cooing over a lemur, a scorpion, and a zebu which had pulled our traditional cart around, I found myself going from updating my pals on Instagram to a deep debate on the role of foreign aid in places like Madagascar. Luckily for me, my victim (LOL) reached peak trifecta - he was good natured, charmed by my mother's exuberant bio, and intrigued by my job in consulting via data analytics. (For any colleagues reading, YES I did ask him what data they had and used to analyse exactly what they needed to do when they arrived in remote places in Africa to teach local people about food - nutrition and sustainability).

After getting to know what each other's jobs were (mama-bear promptly disappeared once I started talking about data LOL), I then lured him into a debate about the role of foreign aid. We even got to a point where the phrase "Give a person a fish and they eat for a day, Teach a person to fish and they eat for a lifetime." It's clichΓ©, I get it, but it was ideal for this particular context. It was explained to me that a lot of the work the WFP focuses on is teaching, setting up the right resources, and ultimately leaving the locals soon after with their new knowledge and skillset. They also check-in, either in person or via the data they collect, on whether their (insert food / hunger measuring) metrics are improving. It sounded fantastic - data-driven decision-making and helping of others, my favourite

This then resulted in me having a deep existential debate with myself over one of my Big Life Questions": What's more important - data analytics or eliminating world hunger? Casual. Like many of my close pals, I frequently question whether I am "doing good" in the world (who doesn't? #teammillenial). My parents have also in the past asked whether I am happy doing what I do (or as I read between the lines: "When are you going to work for the people and not for the man / corporation / that capitalism lifestyle?") - a bit of background, they are both in the arts and as a result contribute far more to culture and society than I do... so far (insert world domination laughter before she runs into a cave to analyse more data). Like many humans, I too am in this perplexing debate around what I need at what stage of life - I need money so I have somewhere to live and something to eat, do I want to work for the public sector and "help the people", but this may mean a pay-cut versus what I'm now adapted to in the private sector... it's a constant balancing act of priorities, all with the aim of staying sane, happy and zen. And apologies in advance because I don't actually have a helpful answer to this, but if you do holler at yo gurl yeah. 

Three days later, when we got back to Tana (tourism-for-pals base aka my family home) it hit me. Mama-bear had been watching the news the previous evening, and over breakfast we ended up talking about the future of Madagascar's farming sector. Some of the local farmers had been complaining that the rice fields, which they had been recommended to use for wheat during off-peak rice season, now no longer grew rice - and if they did, the quality of the rice was poor, which meant they either couldn't sell or had to sell it at a significantly lower price (i.e. no margin, or at a loss). Given the fact that Madagascar is a rice-eating society, the Merina tribe call meals vary sy loka which literally translates as rice and something-to-eat-with-it coming from thousands of years of tradition where rice is the core of every meal and still is, this was understandably a huge concern. Wheat, on the other hand, is a northern hemisphere core of most meals - bread, pasta, cakes... mmm cake. So why would Malagasy farmers be recommended to plant wheat in their rice fields? I cannot straight up answer this question (WFP pal, if you are reading this, please drop me a line so I can better understand). What I am 100% certain of though is that the likelihood of these farmers understanding or knowing the impact of using their generations old rice fields for planting wheat is, well, low.

And here we find ourselves again. Every good deed, though well intentioned, has to be treated with full thought and sensitivity on what impact it could have, good and bad - particularly when it concerns two foreign cultures interacting with each other. The rice to wheat example may seem small, but in a culture where close to 100% of the population lives and thrives on rice, moving to wheat has a wider impact than just rice fields becoming redundant for growing rice - food shortages, change in population diet and health, price inflation on a core staple for the majority of Malagasy families, or in the worst cases corruption and violence (insert the truth about the vanilla industry). It is another balancing act - hopefully with the list of benefits outweighing the negative. 

L I F E L E S S O N S πŸ‘πŸ½ ● what others have taught me where charity is concerned

When it comes to philanthropy and charity work, there is no formula for "what good looks like". Like many aspects of life, it is a cultural structure which evolves over time through experience and research. And like many sectors, some charities are great at this and others aren't. Having said this, there are some governing bodies out there who try to help steer the topic - be it from an individual basis or an organisational one.

1. Charity begins with you
The Lazy Person's Guide to Saving the World ● The UN has 17 goals (how unambitious) to help transform our world, for the better. These goals go from zero hunger, to gender equality, to climate action. I love this guide they created for the Average Joe, i.e. you and me, on how we can make a difference with small actions within our control.

2. Research and understand before acting
A global view of giving trends (2018) ● CAF (Charities Aid Foundation) founded in 1974 is a registered UK charity which provides services and assistance to UK and international charities and their donors. I've only discovered CAF recently, and they have created a yearly report reviewing the (CAF) World Giving Index - this is the 9th year they've produced it - to better understand how charity is evolving across the world via data (woop woop). Each country is ranked for three giving behaviours: (1) Helping a stranger (2) Donating money (3) Volunteering time

3. A well-informed act can make a big difference
We are lucky to live in a world now where most things are researchable - meaning we have the ability to make better informed decisions than ever before. Read, browse the internet, talk to others, or if like mine your workplace has a charity team use them to work out how you can support (either personally or work others are doing). There is no right starting point, just go for it and learn as you go (that's pretty much what I do!).

πŸ™…πŸ½‍♀️ Allow me to repeat, this is not a stop charity or aid post. ● These are important social levers helping to lead us to a more egalitarian world - where there is zero world hunger, no lack of water (or clean water), safe shelter... all of the basic needs every human on this planet deserves. I just feel that we need to keep ourselves in check more often and more openly, like Lammy has done with Comic Relief and Dooley, because let's face it, wise mama-bears won't always be right there next to us when we make these in-the-moment decisions. It starts with every single one of us, standing up for the things we believe in but at the same time keeping ourselves accountable against our actions, how they may be interpreted, perceived, or their wider impact in both our own societies and those we are not familiar with. It's time we lead ourselves to become a more responsible and positive society

πŸ™†πŸ½‍♀️ See y'all soon!

FOOTNOTE: Since I started this post, the Comic Relief "white saviour" story has progressed. It was announced that Comic Relief was down £8m this year after the Lammy vs Dooley public row. Unhelpful journalism has led to Lammy having to release an official response to the headlines of various British news outlets (you can read about it here). It is so easy to blame one person, and yet few want to acknowledge that perhaps viewers were living their lives and not watching TV that evening, or perhaps they wanted to donate to a different charity this year, or perhaps with the looming reality of Brexit on the horizon people are just weary about their finances. Who knows. It's all personal. What I do know though is: it is unhelpful when journalism doesn't bring a factual voice to the nation - but it's whatever sells I guess.


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