‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’…and other dumb questions

bob-geldof

Image courtesy of Reuters

It’s been 30 years since this ridiculous excuse for a song was released. What have we learned in that time? Apparently nothing. Sometimes, if I’m in a particularly forgiving mood, I can come to a place where I understand the social and political context that would make someone in 1984 believe that releasing this song could be anything more than criminal noise pollution. But it’s really hard to forgive when you’re never allowed to forget! Every year I am thrown into an existential fit when I find myself in a car or shopping centre and this song begins to play. As the nausea sets in, I look around and wonder…is anyone else listening to this? Can you hear what they are saying? Is the DJ a robot? Is this real life?!

There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime Oh where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers glow Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

This song, the context that produced it, and its legacy since then is an incredibly rich case study of all that is wrong with Western-led humanitarian discourse and practice. It all began with the famed BBC broadcast of Ethiopia’s famine on October 24, 1984, which reached an audience of over 470 million people worldwide. The broadcast included Michael Buerk reporting that it was “the closest thing to hell on earth”, a statement which was then complemented by Mohamed Amin’s graphic images of dead children and desolate land. The broadcast inspired a number of global fundraisers including Live Aid, which gave birth to the recording Do they Know It’s Christmas? And raise funds they did – millions of dollars in fact. But to what end and at what cost?

Famine is a horrible thing, and the conditions that allowed it to occur and exacerbate in Ethiopia included a deadly mixture of unfavourable climate conditions in the North, political wilful blindness, and a complicated game of diplomatic chess. However, media and pop culture representations of the famine depicted the food crisis as a biblical plague swept over a nation that didn’t see it coming and hadn’t a darn clue of what to do about it. The result was not public political awareness, but rather, a unanimous sense of dumbfounded shock and horror. As it turned out, there was a lot to be gained from masking the complexity of the issue and playing on the consciences of the Western middle class masses. ‘All you have to do is buy this record’, ‘all you have to give is a dollar a day’, ‘just text SAVE to 5050’. It is a tantalizingly simple solution to what is constructed as a hopeless but simple problem.

Live Aid gave birth to a form of populist humanitarian response that continues to raise millions of dollars worldwide. The reckless abandon that often ignites these campaigns is usually a guarantee that both the messaging and funds will be handled irresponsibly. Much has been said, and said again about the effects Western media representations have had in dehumanizing people from the African continent and shaping problematic foreign and domestic policies. Yet here we are, in November of 2014, just days after Bob Geldof excitedly announced that he will be remaking his horrible song with a new band of bright eyed pop stars – but this time in response to the Ebola outbreak. ‘Buy the song. Stop the virus. It’s just that easy.

music-band-aid-30-logo

Now some will quip, isn’t it better to do something rather than nothing? No. That mentality has, and will always remain, more to do about our need to feel good about ourselves than our desire to affect positive change. Social action is important, and North-to-South solidarity is possible, but only when our concern is matched with a commitment to stay informed and act responsibly. There are groups and individuals on the continent with ideas, solutions and opinions that deserve to be heard, but that will require the likes of Bob Geldof and company to pipe down.

Every year, over 600,000 people die from heart disease in the United States, costing the nation over $108.9 billion annually. The main causes include diabetes, obesity, and poor diet, which are indicative of social, political and economic issues indigenous to the U.S. There are a number of organizations, initiatives and campaigns established to raise awareness and funds for heart disease, however none of them have seemed to require the offensive, parochial and sensationalized tactics used for African issues. Imagine that.

Bob Geldof’s BandAid30 might just be another ill-informed and well-intentioned initiative (if you look at it under really really flattering lighting), or perhaps a publicity stunt with a healthy dose of self-righteousness. However suspect, the motivations of these artists are simply not the issue at hand. Thoughtless media representations will continue to wreak havoc on Africa long after Ebola has subsided, just as they continue to do so thirty years after the famine. Thankfully, it is no longer 1984, and technological advances have created a number of global platforms for counter-representations from the Continent to stand upon. Unfortunately, there is still a fundamental power imbalance that means that these alternative – and far more relevant – perspectives will have to struggle to be heard.

So BandAid30…clear the airspace, pause, listen, then respond – or please don’t respond at all.

Alpha Abebe

@alphaabebe

2 Comments

Filed under Development, Ethiopia

2 responses to “‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’…and other dumb questions

  1. Pingback: #yesweknowitschristmas | Roundabouts for Africa

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