British charity praised for swapping celebrities with local heroes in Africa

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 March 2018 17:58 GMT

A woman is seen cooking in the township of West Point, in Monrovia, Liberia October 18, 2017. Picture taken October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

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In December, the charity was awarded a Norwegian advocacy group's Rusty Radiator Award for the worst appeal of 2017

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British charity's decision to move away from celebrity-fronted fundraising appeals for Africa has been praised as daring by the aid watchdog that helped trigger the move, and which had branded an ad starring singer Ed Sheeran as "poverty tourism".

Comic Relief said it would use local heroes rather than celebrities in clips from Africa that will be aired at its flagship annual fundraising event later on Friday.

In December, the charity was awarded a Norwegian advocacy group's Rusty Radiator Award for the worst appeal of 2017 for a video about street children in Liberia starring Sheeran that was criticised for propagating stereotypical messages about poverty.

"I am glad to see that Comic Relief has taken an important step by withstanding from using celebrities as spokespersons for local communities and poverty issues," said Beathe Ogard, the head of the group behind the prize.

"It shows that they are innovative and dare to move away from the same traditional recipe that many charities are still using in their campaigns," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

From actor Emily Watson to Olympic champion Mo Farah, aid groups are increasingly turning to celebrities to champion their cause and attract donors, viewing such endorsements as crucial to raising public awareness of issues.

In January, the practice drew criticism from the outgoing head of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, the non-profit sector's watchdog, who urged agencies to stop chasing stars and focus instead on the people they were set up to help.

Comic Relief's 2017 fundraising event - Red Nose Day - which featured Sheeran's video, raised over 80 million pounds ($113 million).

But the charity's CEO Liz Warner said winning the Rusty Radiator Award, run by the Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund, challenged it to change strategy.

"You've got to be bold and brave going forward. We can't be irresponsible in not raising money for the work we do, but we have to be about total impact rather than always chasing totals," Warner told The Guardian newspaper.

Clips focusing on Africa to be showed during its Sport Relief event, which is broadcast by the BBC and which alternates with Red Nose Day each year, will see local people take centre stage, she said.

A spokesman said the charity would keep working with celebrities, but for causes they were personally invested in. (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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