The Action Replay column from the June 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Comic Relief is a British charity, founded in 1985 by the comedy scriptwriter Richard Curtis and comedian Lenny Henry in response to famine in Ethiopia. The highlight of Comic Relief's appeal is Red Nose Day, a biannual telethon held in March, alternating with sister project Sport Relief. The idea for Comic Relief came from the charity worker Jane Tewson, who established it as the operating name of Charity Projects, a registered charity based in England and Scotland.
Lenny Henry travelled to Ethiopia to celebrate the first Red Nose Day on the 8 February 1988. The event raised £15 million and attracted 30 million television viewers on BBC1. Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry are still active participants of the Red Nose Day Telethon which continues to raise funds for numerous charities that help children in need and tackle worldwide poverty.
The most prominent symbol of Comic Relief is a plastic/foam 'red nose', which is given in various supermarkets and charity shops such as Oxfam in exchange for a donation to the charity and to make others laugh. People are encouraged to wear the noses on Red Nose Day to help raise awareness of the charity. This year’s event took place on Friday 24 March and was broadcast live from Building Six at The O2 in London.
The charity’s clearly stated aim is to 'bring about positive and lasting change in the lives of poor and disadvantaged people, which requires investing in work that addresses people's immediate needs as well as tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice'. A fundamental principle operating at Comic Relief is the 'Golden Pound Principle' where every donated pound is spent on charitable projects. All operating costs, such as staff salaries, are covered by corporate sponsors, or interest earned on money waiting to be distributed.
Large amounts of money flow into Comic Relief, for example the July 2010 accounts for charity registration showed grant payments of ￡59 million, net assets of ￡135 million, with an investment portfolio held in managed pooled funds and fixed term deposits. The average full-time staffing complement was 214 (with 14 staff paid over ￡60,000). Remuneration for the year, excluding pensions, for Kevin Cahill, Chief Executive, was ￡120,410.
On the 13 March 2015, the Red Nose event took place at the London Palladium and raised £99,418,831. At the end of the 2015 Red Nose Day telethon it was announced that in its 30-year history, Comic Relief, the Red Nose Day and Sport Relief appeals had raised in excess of £1bn (£1,047,083,706).
Obviously this is a very well-meaning charity whose stated aim is to improve the lives of people at home and abroad. Many people will experience a sense of wellbeing from donating money to a good cause – feeling that they have made a contribution to ease the suffering of others, and this is, in a way, laudable.
However, one does not want to be perceived as a killjoy or to be lacking the ‘milk of human kindness’ but we might ask ourselves why a charity that has operated for over 30 years has not been able to remedy or overcome the problems of famine or bring about real change in the lives of poor and disadvantaged children.
These problems continue to persist despite large sums of money thrown at them. Could it be that well-meaning initiatives like Red Nose Day and their like, deal only with the symptoms of poverty and famine and not the causes? We live in a world where we could produce enough food for all and yet people still starve. We learn from Economics text books that ‘demand’ is identified as the ability to pay – so food, shelter and other necessaries of life will not be made available to the starving and dispossessed unless they have the money to purchase them. It’s a crazy system that needs to be replaced by socialism – a world without money where people democratically produce and share the goods and services they create. In a socialist society there will be no need for Red Nose Day, Sport Relief, Comic Relief or any other ‘sticking plaster’ initiative, however well-meaning to exist, because we will have created a society where these problems are firmly left in the past.