Around eight years ago, I was snowed in for the first time in my life. This happened in Lesotho, a small, landlocked southern African country. It may not have been Christmas time, but there certainly was snow in Africa that year, and probably not just in Lesotho.
Thirty years ago, Bob Geldof, Bono and various pop stars got together and recorded the first Band Aid single in response to the famine in Ethiopia. Just last week, the record was wheeled out for the third time as a way to generate funds for the Ebola crisis in West Africa. The lyrics have been altered slightly, and some of the acts featured were not born when the original Band Aid song was recorded but the underlying message remains the same as it was 30 years ago; Africa has problems and you can fix them…..by buying this record.
Bob Geldof and his followers seem happy to draw some connections between a famine, born of natural disaster and aggravated and perpetuated by manmade political manipulation, in one region of Ethiopia and a public health crisis in three West African countries. Their message is the same as it was in 1984; ‘give us your money’.
The stereotypes and sweeping generalisations of the original Band Aid prevail; ‘a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear’ – really, every tear? The underlying message here is that everyone in West Africa has Ebola, which, grave as the situation may be, is simply not true. ‘No peace or joy in West Africa this Christmas time’; there are, in fact, 16 countries in West Africa, three of which are currently impacted by Ebola. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to ask the Christian communities of Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso Senegal and the Gambia how much peace and joy they anticipate for themselves this Christmas? There is also an underlying assumption that everyone around the world celebrates Christmas and views it in the same way as we do.
One thing that has always puzzled me about all three Band Aid endeavours was the complete exclusion of African artists and African voices generally. There is no mention of the dedicatedcommunity workers, NGO workers and local leaders who have been battling Ebola since the beginning of the crisis. Did anyone from Band Aid 30 take any time to ask them their opinion onwhat is really needed to tackle the crisis, or what the message of the campaign should be? Or are they assuming that they, as a group of white western celebrities with no training in public health,have the answers? There is no shortage of musical talent in the region; some of the best known artists on the continent recently released ‘Africa stop Ebola’, with the aim of spreading hope and tackling misinformation about how to protect yourself against the disease, but yet voices like theirs have never featured on a Band Aid song.
You might ask if this really matter? If it generates funds which can alleviate some of the suffering, surely that is a good thing? Of course anything that can be done to support the countries currently facing Ebola is a good thing. However, I would argue that focusing solely on generating funds really does amount to nothing more than a band aid on a much deeper wound. That wound is a global system that is designed and managed to favour more ‘developed’ countries through its trade agreements, exploitation of natural resources and debt structures. econdly, reverting back to the model of ‘send money to the poor Africans’ simply encourages paternalistic stereotypes, reinforcing the idea that Africa must be ‘saved’ by the West. Uganda successfully contained an outbreak of Ebola in 2012, and Nigeria successfully halted the spread of the disease earlier this year. Community health workers, NGOs and local leaders have been battling the disease on the ground since the first outbreak in Guinea almost a year ago. The ‘give us your money’ approach ignores the above facts and promotes the old idea that ‘they’ are the problem and ‘we’ are the solution – they are crying tears of death while we ‘can spread a smile of joy’.
An inclusive discussion on the inherently unequal global structure which underpins the current challenge may not fit so neatly into song lyrics and may not generate as much funds, but does that make it alright for celebrities, however well intentioned, to continually avoid the elephant in the room? Liberia and Sierra Leone have both experienced years of conflict and had begun the long road of rebuilding their infrastructure, including health systems, in recent years. Control of natural resources, including diamonds, formed an important part of the story of those conflicts and the demand for these natural resources lies mainly in Western countries. Exploitation of natural resources is part of the centuries old story of Western influence in Africa, and underpins the global trade agreements which restrict African countries to the lower end of the value chain as producers of raw materials. For example, this recent article in The Guardian points out that Sierra Leone’s recent growth figures largely represent mining activity, and mining corporations have been granted enormous tax incentives. Christian Aid reports that the resulting lost revenue came to nearly 14% of GDP in 2011. They predict the country will lose more than $240m annually from tax incentives in coming years, with the vast bulk made up from tax incentives granted to a couple of British mining companies.
Geldof, Bono and others like them have an opportunity to use their position and influence to encourage a more honest and open debate about global inequality. They can chose to ask and be asked difficult questions, as opposed to misleading the wider public that all that is needed to stop a famine, end poverty and kill off Ebola is buying a record. This approach did not ultimately change the long term outlook for the people of Ethiopia 30 years ago, and it will certainly not change the long term challenges for the people of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia once Ebola has been brought under control. It simply serves to reinforce a negative image of Africa as a monolithic place of suffering, where the only relief, the only solutions must be delivered from us – ‘tonight, we’re reaching out and touching you’ . My biggest issue with the Band Aid approach is that it completely ignores the bigger picture. Instead of engaging in any debate about the structural causes of global inequality, Geldof and his crew are actually doing very little to bring about real and lasting change. Food insecurity and food shortages have not, after all, been assigned to the annals of history through the wonder of Live Aid. At the end of the day, it will be the people and governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea who will be left to pick up the pieces, and they will face the same uphill battle on the global scale as they did before Ebola. They will be doing their best on the same uneven playing field while people on the far side of the world think ‘well, I did my bit, I bought the record just like Sir Bob told me to’. If the same number of people who have already bought the Band Aid 30 song lobbied for trade justice the long term outcomes could be quite different. Bob Geldof slated Adele for not getting involved in the song, and he has also lashed out at critics of Band Aid 30, saying that they were ‘all talking b*llocks’. It would be much more constructive, as well as much more respectful, for Geldof to actually engage with his critics and to acknowledge that, just maybe, he is missing a bigger point here.