Every two years the British nation puts its reserve to one side for a day and engages in activities that one would normally see performed by entertainers at a children’s birthday party. In aid of good causes people dress up like street performers, willingly get involved in bizarre sponsorship activities and wear red noses to raise money for those less fortunate than themselves.
People in British society buy into these fundraising events for a variety of reasons. Faith groups believe that they have a moral responsibility; corporate business believe it enhances their public image; and schools believe it contributes to the promotion of good citizenship. Millions of pounds are raised to relieve suffering and protect the most vulnerable, but this is peanuts compared to the billions spent on propping up a creaking global financial system. I remember the first time the British public was engaged in an international fundraising campaign around a specific event – Live Aid 1985. I was watching the live transmission as the amount raised crept towards one million pounds and Bob Geldof was pleading with viewers to give more money. The interview was interrupted by a telephone call from an anonymous donor from the Middle East who pledged one million pounds from their personal fortune.
So, if the amount of money raised only represents a sticking plaster for the problems then what drives these events and why do they have such a high profile? Engaging millions of people in acts of collective financial support also raises greater public awareness of global inequalities and places poverty on the global political agenda. However, the way these events generate support also has a hidden cost on how we perceive people in distant countries. The British public are motivated to respond to the need for help through a sense of compassion for those less fortunate. The event organisers are aware of this and so they make sure there are images of suffering included in their broadcasts. Stories that focus on hunger or orphaned children as a result of conflict or HIV are common. The settings are usually rural, depicting traditional ‘straw huts’ and women carrying water on their heads. These images have a significant influence on our perceptions. To anyone who has not visited these distant places, or has not critically analysed the broadcast, they contribute to a distorted and negative stereotype.
As teachers we need to be aware of the hidden costs of a red nose. Engaging young people in fundraising activities around national events may engender good moral values but what effects do the images and messages used by these events have on their perceptions of people in distant places? As the pace of globalisation increases, the movement of people and information around the world presents young people with new challenges. How they relate to people from different cultures, interpret images and messages and challenge inequalities depends upon how they perceive the wider world. To promote community cohesion, and avoid racial prejudice and discrimination in the future, young people need a more balanced and objective perspective.
Extract from Boronski, R. ‘The Hidden Cost of a Red Nose’ in Primary Geography, Summer 2011, 18-20.