New Times,
New Thinking.

27 May 2010

I didn’t go to Live 8 or wear a “Make Poverty History“ wristband

So about this Senegal trip.

By Mark Watson

I had mixed feelings about taking it on, and not just because it would involve leaving my very small baby with my very tired wife in order to go somewhere where I might not be able to contact them. That’s right, in some parts of Senegal, they don’t even have a functioning 3G network. Imagine.

And that wry remark is a clue to the source of my unease, which is that I’ve always felt a bit odd about rich people going out to Africa, posing in front of cameras for a few minutes, then suggesting that “you at home get involved”, and going back to their air-conditioned hotels and getting on Twitter to tell the folks back home about all the poverty.

Don’t get me wrong: I always support these ventures. I always donate to Comic Relief, Sport Relief, Children in Need and anything else that comes on TV and pricks my conscience. There’s absolutely no doubt that there is huge value in Chris Moyles or Tess Daly or whoever spearheading these charity initiatives, and I don’t even really go along with people calling Bono a hypocrite and so on, because, yes, he might be very wealthy, but hey — he doesn’t HAVE to do anything at all to raise money.

There are plenty of equally wealthy powerful people who don’t do shit. Bono might be a bit of a dickhead; he may once have paid for a plane seat for his hat; and he may have peaked as a musical force some time in the late 1980s, but I still think any charity work is better than none, and someone being a bit of a self-righteous knob doesn’t invalidate the importance of that work.

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However: I never watch Sport Relief or any of the other ones; I never listen to Bono or Geldof’s pronouncements; I didn’t go to Live 8 or wear a “Make Poverty History” wristband or any of that; basically, as soon as there’s an opportunity to donate to people in developing countries, I do it, then change the channel and don’t think about it again.

This isn’t purely because I’ve got no appetite for the spectacle of celebs climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with their camera crews trailing behind them for soundbites, let alone James Corden dressing up and dicking around with footballers. It’s also because of the fatalistic feeling — which I think creeps up on all of us where charities are concerned — that you are sending money into a black hole of injustice/poverty/hopelessness and next year it will all happen again, and basically, the world’s ills are far too big to be conquered even by the BBC newsreaders doing a karaoke number, and even if they could be cured there’s always a Haiti around the corner, and, basically, where will this end? Didn’t we make poverty history? Is it really worth me chucking 20 quid in the direction of Graham Norton or whoever, when need and hardship keep growing new heads as fast as you can chop them off?

The answer to all this is common sense: no, of course you can’t cure all the world’s ills, but that shouldn’t stop you from making a tiny contribution to easing one ill. Which is where child sponsorship comes in. I’m sure you know the general idea of this — you pay a (pretty paltry) amount each month and the money goes specifically towards school supplies/clothes/Nintendo Wiis for a designated kid (small joke in that sentence). You write to the kid and they write back, and so on. I’ve done this on and off quite a lot. I’d never seen it in action though, and this was my chance. So I went.

Mark Watson in Senegal

I could bang on about the harsh, arid landscapes/glaring sun from a white, cloudless sky/ramshackle settlements etc for a short novel-length blog, but you’ve all been to Africa or seen it in films: it was like that. Dazzling, strange and magical, but it won’t be particularly dazzling or magical to hear me describe it. I’ll focus on the villages we went to.

The trip was a frantic tour around — mostly very remote — communities helped by ActionAid money over the past months and years. In the way of these things we were welcomed everywhere by elaborate displays of traditional drumming and dancing, very long speeches by tribal elders, ceremonial wrestling (at last — someone respects Watson’s right to have wrestling wherever he goes) and hyperbole. In one village, our interpreter said that I was “a famous writer and actor from Britain” and about 300 people whooped and clapped hysterically, despite never having seen We Need Answers (just like most people in Britain). As with any visit to foreign lands, though, the best bit was not the scheduled rigmarole but the fascination of meeting people in their homes and seeing what they get up to in their day-to-day lives.

I met several kids who are directly supported by ActionAid sponsorships and, again in the usual way of a British visitor to a developing country, I was pretty humbled and awed by all of them. I watched a 9-year-old girl carry a bucket of water (on her head, like they do in films), which I myself would struggle to move an inch with my entire bodyweight. I “helped” other kids grind millet and fetch water from their well and heft bundles of firewood around; and by “helped”, I mean “watched goofily, wondering how the hell people manage to live like this”. In one village, I also “helped” the kids to play football for quite a while. The kids were all shy, good-humoured and unbelievably strong and energetic.

This was not just because of the (often, boringly remarked upon) resilience and courage of people living in adverse circumstances, but because those circumstances had clearly been improved by western money. Simple stuff like school books and stationery had made an enormous difference (noticeably, all the kids were desperate to go to school, and wanted to become doctors or secretaries, rather than X Factor winners, although I did speak to one kid who wanted to be a footballer because “there’s money in it”).

Mark Watson in Senegal

On a larger scale, money had gone towards putting an irrigation system in to improve productivity on farms, by a massive degree; updating buildings; maintaining power supplies and so on. The amounts of money in question are, by the standards of what we spend on stuff like boxsets or beer, pitiful. A couple of luxury purchases equals a life-altering amenity to a Senegalese family.

Obviously, we all know this, we’re all familiar with the ads on buses about “£10 would feed this person, £20 get them medicine, etc” and familiar, too, with the attendant feelings of unfocused, useless guilt. But it’s something else to see the proof of it. It restores your faith in charity as something that’s exciting and radical, rather than an endless, unwinnable battle.

(I should say as an aside, the people I worked with from ActionAid were highly motivated, passionate and basically amazing. It’s worth saying this because cynics sometimes moan about how if you give to charity, “most of it goes to their running costs”. It’s not true, but in any case, it’s worth stating that charity work is basically busting your balls for minimal financial rewards and no glamour at all. I really respect these people.)

What could have been a rather depressing trip was instead an inspiring lesson in the reality behind the rhetoric that accompanies charity campaigns. I’ve been shown that the beneficiaries of charity are real people like (cliche alert) us, and the benefits are measurable and quite easily brought about. Senegal is, in global terms, dirt poor, but it isn’t sitting there desperately waiting to be bailed out, only to slide back again; it’s using whatever resources we can muster to make genuine progress. I was fortunate to be able to see this first-hand and now I’m going to make it my business to pass the message on.

If you’re reading this in the west, you can get involved in the Bristol-centric campaign I’m heading right-now-this-minute by going to Action Aid’s Make Your Mark (it’s a coincidence that Mark is my name). On 1 June, I’ll be on College Green in Bristol unveiling a great big portrait made of hundreds of little portraits people did as part of the campaign. And wherever you are, you can go to the same link and watch a film of me saying more or less the same things as I’ve said here, but with a hat on, and squinting into the sun. And if that doesn’t make you want to sponsor a child, I don’t know what will. (I’m not sure if the film is up yet, but it won’t be long.)

I apologise for the unusually sober tone of this blog but you can be pretty confident I’ll go back to talking complete crap very soon. I won’t, however, forget this trip in a hurry.


This post originally appeared on Mark Watson’s blog.

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