Africa doesn’t want any more western band aids

Africans still associate it with a dark period – humanity and dignity were trumped by sensationalist

Irish singer-songwriter and campaigner Bob Geldof announced the launch of #BandAid30 to raise funds to fight Ebola in West Africa [AP]

Bob Geldof is to re-record Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” the 1984 charity anthem that mobilised resources for a famine that devastated parts of northern Ethiopia and present day Eritrea between 1983 and 1985. 

He has again brought together famous friends such as One Direction, Bono, and Chris Martin of Coldplay for what is, remarkably, the song’s fourth revival. This time, Geldof says he hopes to raise resources to fight Ebola. On the surface that seems like an act of goodwill, so what’s wrong with it? Plenty.

A distorted image of victimhood

Band Aid, and the related Live Aid concerts, raised over $100m for the Ethiopian famine victims. They galvanised a public that had largely been indifferent, marking a watershed for how celebrities engaged with humanitarian issues and how organisations conducted fundraising appeals. However, with unfounded and inaccurate lyrics, the Christmas song not only created misconceptions about Ethiopia, but it did so in a patronising way.

Despite the fact the famine was localised to northern Ethiopia and a result of political manipulation, the songs, concerts, and fundraising appeals perpetuated a single, negative, and distorted view of Ethiopia, making it synonymous with famine, poverty, and desperation.

Inside Story – Ebola: Winning a battle but losing the war?

The Band Aid and Live Aid campaigns left Ethiopia with a stigma that Ethiopians and Africans carry to this day. In fact, according to a 2001 research study on the legacy of Live Aid, 80 percent of British citizens associate the developing world with poverty, hunger and need. This type of stigma doesn’t just leave Africans with a public relations problem; it can have broader implications for tourism, investments and other opportunities necessary for self-governance and autonomy.

While the historical context described above is important to understanding the strong reactions against #BandAid30, the problem also lies in its detachment from reality today. Africa and African countries have changed. Whereas in 1985, Ethiopians, under a repressive, communist regime, were not able to organise, Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, and Guineans have been responding to Ebola since the beginning of the outbreak in March.  

Community institutions and civil society organisations in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea have temporarily suspended all their non-Ebola programmes, launched aggressive education campaigns, built temporary holding centres, and taken care of children and families affected by Ebola. They are not helpless victims waiting for western saviours. They can, however, benefit from support and solidarity in the form of financial and technical resources.

While African governments and philanthropists were slow to respond at first, there has been a growing crescendo of giving for Ebola. Three of Africa’s richest men, Patrice Motsepe, Aliko Dangote, and Tony Elumelu, have given $1m, $800,000 and $600,000 respectively, and on November 8, the African Union pushed the private sector to give over $28.5m in pledges.

The African diaspora has also taken it upon itself to act as an intermediary of resources and knowledge with initiatives like Lunchbox and Africa Responds. The latter aims to mobilise resources to support local organisations that are fighting Ebola on the ground, ensuring communities that are affected by Ebola are able to overcome the outbreak through their own efforts.

New lyrics

Still, there is something commendable about Geldof adding his voice to the Ebola response. Compared to other humanitarian emergencies, the fight against Ebola is severely underfunded. However, a song that is a model of bad aid should not have been recycled. With plans to record the new version on November 15, the ship has certainly sailed.

Let’s hope, at the very least, that he will heed the constructive criticism that #BandAid30 has received and improve the message in the song’s latest reincarnation. For a start, it would be great if he could get African artists – especially those from affected countries – into the recording booth as well.

Geldof has declared his intention to tweak the lyrics, but they need a complete overhaul. He says the proceeds will go to charity, but he should allocate at least a portion for indigenous organisations that are at the forefront of the fight against Ebola. This would be a bold move in a world that still favours international organisations when it comes to responding to Africa’s emergencies.

Band Aid is a relic of an old era that patronised Africa. Clearly, many Africans still associate it with a dark period in which our humanity, dignity and agency were trumped by sensationalist humanitarianism. We now know that there are more effective ways of responding to emergencies, and a central part of that is supporting and strengthening the local response. Africans are now more connected to each other, and to the rest of the world, than at any other time in history.

Put simply, 30 years on, African countries have changed.

So should Geldof’s song. 

Solome Lemma is cofounder of Africans in the Diaspora and Africa Responds.

Follow her on Twitter: @InnovateAfrica