Early doors in my time at Comic Relief I made a trip to Uganda to see the work of Action on Disability. The status of disabled people in the country was parlous. Over time the project worked with other disability groups in country and finally succeeded in enshrining the rights of disabled people in law and winning representation through a disabled councillor on every local council through the land. That's what we call a big win here at Comic Relief and is proof positive the public's money can drive systemic change.
On later visits I've met all kinds of people whose lives were equally challenged. On Mother's Day in 1995 on a hillside in Rwanda fifty women dressed in their Sunday best testified to me, a complete stranger, on the shocking atrocities and devastating personal loss they had experienced during the genocide. Their children sat close by impeccably behaved while the terrible stories unfolded. In a strange way I think telling their stories actually helped but I was left wondering what could possibly be done to help. Time has proved a healer but only with the determination and passion of groupings of the women themselves demanding help and support. They raised funds which helped start small businesses, get counselling, fight for access to anti-retroviral drugs and provided decent homes. We tried to hold their hands as they went and made documentaries about their struggle and appealed to the public for money to help.
25 years on, both of these countries have come a long way. Disability rights is firmly on the agenda in Uganda, and Rwanda has beaten even Sweden and Cuba to have more female members of parliament than any other country in the world.
Red Nose Day has come a long way too in the last 25 years. Since its beginnings as the Comic Relief MegaNight in 1988, with noses sold in Woolworths and Wimpy, Red Nose Day has raised over £600 million and is now the world largest recurring public fundraising campaign. From humble fundraising beginnings our current nose sponsor Sainsbury's presented us with a cheque for £11 million last time round. And an estimated 21,000 schools took part in what has now become a national coming together loved by all.
Alongside the examples above, Comic Relief funding has helped have a similar impact in other communities and countries across Africa, touching the lives of around 40 million beneficiaries in all. Kids have gone through school, mothers have given birth in safety, infants have been inoculated against killer diseases, slum communities have gained access to safe water, blind peopIe have had sight restoring surgery and so on. It has also supported change here in the UK, where Comic Relief has helped over 10 million people through its support for big initiatives like the National Domestic Violence Helpline and the Time to Change campaign against mental health stigma, and smaller schemes giving fun days out to child carers or paying for a pensioners group to hire the village hall to meet, talk and feel less lonely.
Today is Red Nose Day's 25th birthday and we will be thanking the public for their donations and reporting back on the impact their cash has made. It's a first step in our latest campaign which culminates on the Red Nose Day Night of Television on the BBC on the 15th March.
These celebrations will mark a quarter of a century of Red Nose Day, but the real thing to celebrate is the progress that Africa itself has made in that time and what is clear is that the change is mainly down to things that African people have done themselves in their own communities.
Six out of ten of the world's fastest growing economies are now in Africa, HIV infections and malaria mortality are falling fast, literacy is increasing and there have been 22 African Nobel Prize winners to date. As I travel I can see the beds with dying aids patients are gone, the number of young African graduates is on the rise and technology is on the march.
Given the turnaround in the continent's fortunes you could ask if the message of Red Nose Day is outdated, or even if the campaign still needed at all. There are two reasons why it is.
The first is that there are still huge areas of need in Africa. To take just one example, there are an estimated 3.7 million children under the age of five who die each year in Africa, and 17% of these deaths could be stopped by vaccines. That's six hundred thousand children whose lives could be saved each year by something that costs less than £5 per child. These needs are replicated in other areas of work in other countries across the world. The squeeze on public funds in the UK has meant the voluntary sector is feeling the pinch like never before.
The second reason is that Red Nose Day is a day of huge fun and engagement that speaks directly to a mass audience. This morning there was be a live broadcast presented by Jonathan Ross and Davina McCall from a vaccine centre in Accra to all the major UK breakfast programmes, showing viewers the work that they have helped fund as it is happening on the ground.
The comedians act as the eyes and ears of the public in the campaign, helping them understand and empathise with problems that will never affect them, and people that they will never meet. When One Direction visited Ghana in January they generated a quarter of a million tweets, many of them from pre-teenage girls typing the word 'Africa' into their phones for the first time in their lives.
Whether with a sophisticated message about development or a straightforward appeal to the emotions, the aim of Red Nose Day is to make the public care. The rising fundraising totals and numbers of people who participate in the campaign make it clear that they still do and 50 million lives have been changed because of it.
For the past 25 years the money raised through Red Nose Day has been changing the lives of 50 million people in the UK and Africa. The next Red Nose Day is Friday 15th March. Let's keep up the #goodwork. Find out how at rednoseday.com
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