Ed Sheeran Wins 'Most Offensive' Fundraising Initiative Award For Liberian 'Poverty Tourism' Video
Sheeran teamed up with Comic Relief for the video critics call offensive, white savior-y "poverty tourism."
Sheeran and British aid organization Comic Relief received the Rusty Radiator award during this year’s Radi-Aid Awards for a video the singer and organization made to raise money for orphaned children in Liberia.
The Radi-Aid Awards, named after a satirical aid video made by Africa for Norway, are put on by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) to honor the good work and shame the bad work of NGOs and aid groups.
The Rusty Radiator Award is given to the year’s “most offensive” fundraising initiative.
Sheeran's now award-winning video was called “poverty tourism” by the Radi-Aid Awards jury, according to the Guardian.
The video, which you can see below, shows Sheeran wandering a beach just before dawn, watching children sleep in trash-filled boats. In a voice over, the singer says, “Across Africa, millions of the world’s poorest children don’t even have a bed to sleep in,” not mentioning that he is specifically in the country of Liberia rather than in some unnamed part of the African continent.
After some footage of the sleeping children, Sheeran tells viewers the name of an orphan, rather than having the child tell us; he interviews this child, and seems overwhelmed by his story.
Finally, Sheeran decides to put a few of the homeless orphans up in a hotel, promising to “get them sorted.” Viewers don’t see that happen, but a supertitle assures us that the chosen children are “safe now.”
Critics of the video say it focuses on Sheeran, making him a white savior, swooping into Liberia alone and saving the day rather than giving the children whom the video is meant to help humanity and an identity of their own.
Edward Echwalu, a Ugandan photographer and member of the Radi-Aid jury, said that the video should have used “the voice of the people. Not a child who cannot even state their name.”
Critics like Echwalu also argue that the Sheeran video, and others like it, give no context, no explanation of who those that are shown to be suffering are, or what circumstances led them to be in trouble.
Aid organizations need to “tell stories,” Echwalu argues, not just pull at the global north’s guilt with images of pain.
“Tell stories — positive stories about ambitions: we are here, we are starting a new life, where do you see yourself — that should be the approach,” Echwalu said.
An example of what the jury was looking for is War Child Holland’s War Child/Batman film, which the judges called “powerful” and “effective humanitarian crisis imagery.”
The runners-up for the Rusty Radiator Award, which featured actors Tom Hardy and Eddie Redmayne, respectively, weren’t much better than the Sheeran short, according to Beathe Øgård, the president of SAIH.
SAIH called the Hardy video “devoid of dignity” and the Redmayne film “poverty porn and people waiting to be saved.”
“We have been presented with these kind of images since the 1980s,” Øgård, said. “They are horrible to watch. People are so used to them that for many they reinforce that feeling of hopelessness and apathy — and even a negative view of development in that nothing is going in the right direction.”
Echwalu added that he also hated how all three videos featured a celebrity, reinforcing for aid organizations “the general mentality that they have to bring a Western celebrity with them.”
The aid organizations themselves claim that they do have to bring a celebrity with them.
“The reality is, whether it is breakfast television, Cosmopolitan magazine or the Daily Mail, it is the combination of the celebrity which makes it interesting and accessible,” Mike Noyes of aid group ActionAids said.
Noyes added that while he wishes this wasn’t so, “people on breakfast television are not going to have me on to speak,” no matter how much “fantastic work we do.”
And too, as Comic Relief has pointed out, its celebrity videos raise a lot of money. The Sheeran video took in $109 million. And the Redmayne and Hardy videos didn’t do too badly, either, with the former pulling in $80 million, and the latter $36 million.
Still, Comic Relief has said it understands why it won the negative award, and that it will use its Rusty Radiator as a learning experience.
The Radi-Aid Awards “rightly challenge organizations like Comic Relief to be responsible, fresh and relevant,” Comic Relief’s head Liz Warner said, adding that “that’s a challenge we have always tried to meet and will continue to do so, perhaps now with a little more energy.”
Warner also thanked Sheeran while trying to shield him from blame, and said, “We really hope that we don’t win this award again.”