Comic Relief – what would Emma Goldman say?

Yesterday afternoon I stood with a small tour group of young activists outside tsedokohChristchurch Hall off Brick Lane, where the unstoppable force that was the international anarchist celebrity, Emma Goldman, gave three lectures when she was visiting London in late 1899. The Yiddish poster for one of those lectures survives. it announces that she will speak about Tsedokeh (charity). In the 1899 version of clickbait, the poster entices the audience with some questions:
“Vilt ir visn vos is dos azoyns tsedokeh?”
Do you want to know what is this thing charity?
“Vilt ir visn varum un ver es git tsedokeh?”
Do you want to know who gives charity and why?


These are, of course, contemporary questions, and every two years when Red Nose Day comes around, I wish Emma Goldman was around to deconstruct Comic Relief and chart an alternative. I don’t know the exact words she said at this particular meeting in 1899 but in her writings on charity a few years later she described it as a function of capitalism – an economic system that “robs man of his birthright, stunts his growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self respect.”

Another forceful woman speaker who spoke at the same venue a decade earlier was Annie Besant. Having once been a very enthusiastic Christian, she later became a leading secularist and atheist. In that phase of her life, her pet hate was Christian charity which, she said, “plunders the workers of the wealth they make, and then flings back at them a thousandth part of their own product as charity. It builds hospitals for the poor whom it has poisoned in filthy courts and alleys.”

In both these descriptions the recipients of charity are seen not as equals whom the giver of charity is helping to empower and access their rights but as objects of pity, always below and always inferior to the person giving the charity. The charity they receive might relieve some stresses temporarily but it is like a tiny plaster, that eventually comes off, and the wound hasn’t really healed. The givers don’t see that bit – they focus, often very sanctimoniously, on the moment of giving.

Red Nose Day brings my negative feelings about charity very close to the surface not just because I am familiar with the radical critiques of charity of people like Goldman and Besant, but because I have seen its work at first hand, which undoubtedly benefited a community – at least in the short term – in some significant respects. Though I also know about those crucial questions it does not and will not address, and I recognise the harmful ideology that it keeps in place.


Children at a reclaimed Katakwi school, 2010

In summer 2010 I was in Uganda doing some work for Link Community Development (LCD), an NGO which I had a close connection with for more than 10 years . On that trip I spent some time meeting and interviewing people who were part of a Comic Relief-funded project in an area called Katakwi, just starting to recover from three decades of conflict. During many of those years, people used school compounds not as places of education but as Displaced Persons’ camps to collectively protect themselves from those who were frequently raiding and attacking and sometimes kidnapping them. The children got very little education and communities couldn’t work on their farms very much. As a result people were extremely poor and there was very little food. Gradually, after long-demanded and long-awaited government action to give more protection to the threatend communities, things have become more peaceful and schools are returning to thier more normal function. Comic Relief has channeled some of the huge amounts of money raised through  charitable donations to give several schools in this district equipment and seeds for developing school gardens in which they can grow their own food.  The local organisation they are working through is LCD , who as their name implies sees school development going hand in hand with community participation. In each of these schools there is a group of 30 adults from the community who work with the children and teachers growing food together.


Sunset in Katakwi

The climate in Katakwi makes life difficult, and undoubtedly played a part in the conflicts, which had an ethnic dimension too, but were essentially about access and control of scarce resource. In the Katakwi region, if you add the dry seasons together they take up more than half the year. So, Katakwi provides the kinds of images that abound in Comic Relief videos – starved, emaciated children, little food growing, very poor living conditions. Fortunately when I was there I didn’t bump into any super-rich tax-avoiding western pop stars looking devastated and tearful.

But I spent two other periods in Uganda – through the same NGO – in 2001 and 2005 in the much more fertile areas around Masindi and Kiryandongo. There the rain falls in buckets for nine months of the year. So many crops grow there, and so quickly: coffee, sugar, tobacco, bananas,  mangoes, pineapples, beans, maize, cassava, and many more,  but the people there – mainly subsistence farmers –  also suffer grinding poverty. Is it because they don’t get the same kind of attention from Comic Relief?


Fruit-seller in Kigumba Market, Kiryandongo

The problem is more basic. Farmers there cannot get a decent price for their excess produce, beyond their subsistence needs, on the world market. The questions of why there are richer and poorer countries, whether it was chance or through conquest and massive transfers of wealth; or the questions about which companies control food prices globally are the questions that Comic relief cannot and will not ask. Fair Trade projects are spreading  to more districts in Uganda and that is making some difference for local communities but Ugandans need trade justice for any real economic shift.

My own observations and conversations in Uganda were undertaken in summer breaks when I was working as a primary school teacher in inner London. When Red Nose Day came round it was probably quite confusing for the children at our school. One of the other teachers was a great enthusiast for Red Nose Day, would order in all the packs to popularise it among the children. The school would have a “fun day” in which children would come up with some very inventive ways of raising money and would collect a decent amount for Comic Relief. But I would take the opportunity to do an assembly for the school that would acknowledge the children’s genuine desire to “make a difference” but also subvert and challenge the charity mindset in the spirit of Emma Goldman .

Being generous to others, giving help to those who need it, showing that you care for someone else, not just yourself, wanting the world to be a fairer place, I said, were all good things. I congratulated them on the money they raised through their efforts. But I would then give them give them two very important messages about charity.

The first one was that  what you do is much, much, more important than what you give, and at school, at home, within your community, they could make a positive difference by what they do every day, not just once every two years on Red Nose Day. I explained that if you become aware of what makes some things in the world unjust and then change the way they live your lives and the actions you take, you can impact on the world.

The second message was about how they conceive of the recipients of charity: Do we see them as people we feel sorry for because they can’t help themselves or do we see them as people who have a right to live with dignity – equal to everyone else, in a fairer world, and through actions we take we are helping them to do so? I encouraged them to to look at the world in terms of rights and recognise that people who are poor have a right not to be poor; people who don’t have clean water have a right to clean water to drink and to use; people who are living in a place of war have a right to live in peace; people who are homeless have a right to have shelter. And that people are already fighting for these things themselves but we can support them.

In terms of practical things that they could do I suggested some small things: that they and their families buy a bigger proportion of fair trade products when they are shopping ; that they look out for situations of injustice near to them and try to do something about it – to stand up for their own rights and for the rights of others. I talked about making the world a more comfortable place for everyone where they live, to recognise that some of their neighbours might be refugees new to the area, and think about how they could offer friendship and support.

I talked about how many problems in the world are to do with people in positions of power discriminating in one way or the other – whether on the basis of someone’s skin colour, beliefs, or gender. I suggested that when they grow up, if they find themselves in a position to make decisions that affect the lives of others, that they choose not to discriminate. I talked also about how they could campaign for peace; how wars can’t be made without weapons, and just how many weapons are built by richer countries and sold to poorer countries.  I would usually end with what they can do to make their own opinions and their own voice heard. I acknowledged that they couldn’t vote until they were 18 but I told them they didn’t have to wait until they were 18, or even at secondary school to write a letter to a newspaper, or to their MP, or to the Prime Minister. And they didn’t have to wait until they were 18 to join a campaign about something they cared about.

IMG_1143I have left the world of work in primary education now – these days I am teaching adults  – though occasionally taking primary age children on radical guided walks. But I hope some of these messages got through, and that some of those young people I spoke to a few years ago are part of the generation giving energy to the large protests against Trump and against racism that we have seen here in the first three months of 2017. I’ve spoken at two of those large rallies and it is really heartening from the platform to see a sea of young faces from many backgrounds making up a large proportion of the crowds. Perhaps the most heartening movement for me in this respect is that on the Stand up to Trump rally a few weeks ago I bumped into two teachers I used to  work with and one of them told me about her pride that her teenage daughter was also there that day,having organised herself and a multicultural friendship group, to come together to participate in the march on their own terms and in their own way.

So, to Emma Goldman’s still pertinent questions about what this thing charity is, and who gives it and why, let’s add a few more for 2017: what are the alternatives to charity for changing the world? How do we organise ourselves to do it? How can we make every day Red?


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