By Hannah Cook (Staff Writer)
This week saw the latest incarnation of the Bob Geldof charity juggernaut that is Band Aid, with the 1984 single ’Do They Know It’s Christmas’ being updated and re-recorded by a new generation of musicians and pop stars. And Bono.
While the focus of the original effort was famine in Ethiopia, this 30th anniversary release encourages supporters to ‘BUY THE SONG. STOP THE VIRUS’. The virus in question is Ebola, which the WHO estimates has been responsible for more than 5,000 deaths in west Africa, since March 2014[i]. Ebola is undeniably terrifying, it is presently destroying lives and communities, and agencies seeking to support those affected need significant and urgent support.
But is Band Aid really the best way to channel your support? I’m not so sure.
At the heart of my concerns are issues of power and legitimacy. In designing and delivering international development programmes, power analysis is an essential process[ii]. It helps to ensure a deep understanding of context, and of how an intervention will affect people’s lives. Such considerations must not be restricted to the field. Organisations have a responsibility to ensure that the same considerations are reflected in all aspects of their operations, including fundraising and advocacy. Only by holding a deep understanding of those in whose name you are working, and most importantly by having their consent and support, can any such activities be legitimately undertaken.
In considering the legitimacy of Band Aid, I asked myself two simple questions;
Whose names and voices are most closely associated with the project?
Not those most affected by Ebola. Front and centre is Bob Geldof and the Band Aid brand. The Ebola crisis itself appears as a secondary narrative in much of the media coverage, which focuses instead on close analysis of what the stars wore to the recording, and who sang each line of the song. At my most cynical, I almost feel as though Ebola could be swapped for any number of other humanitarian crises, with very little impact on the way in which the appeal is presented, such is the focus on the brand.
By simplifying the story in this way, presenting the crisis as an event free from history or context, and creating a link with the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, the notion of Africa as a place of helpless people in need, rather than a huge and diverse continent, is perpetuated. Africa does not need to be saved, and it definitely doesn’t need to be saved by One Direction. Fundraisers have a responsibility to ensure that a balanced view of countries and issues is communicated. Much has been written of Ethiopia’s struggle to shrug off its mantle as the poster child for poverty, an effort made more difficult by snippets of film in the original, annually repeated Band Aid video, that form many people’s perception of the country to this day. No signs of learning from this experience are, however, evident in this latest venture.
Who is leading the agenda?
Again, not those affected by or closest to the crisis. In their most recent report to the Charity Commission, the Band Aid Trust list their countries of operation as being Eritrea, Ethiopia, Niger, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda[iii], none of which are currently part of the Ebola crisis[iv], suggesting that the Trust have no established operations, or links with national bodies, in the countries for whom they are fundraising. While I have been unable to find any information on how funds generated by the Band Aid 30 single will be disbursed, it is probably safe to assume that NGOs and development agencies will be invited to apply for funds, as they do from organisations such as Comic Relief, but the criteria on which such decisions will be made are unclear, and the legitimacy of a trust with no experience in the region or the issues to make these decisions is questionable at best. Such a process also runs contrary to the group’s message of urgent need. If a rigorous and responsible application and vetting process is undertaken, it may be months before funds are available for use in the field. If such processes are overlooked, the Trust is opening themselves up to the risk of funds being misappropriated, a criticism levied at previous Band Aid efforts. It is precisely to ensure coordination between agencies, and the speedy allocation of funds to trusted partners, that the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) was established. They already have underway a hugely successful fundraising campaign[v], and the plans and infrastructure for how to spend that money are in place. It is testament to the hubris of Band Aid that they establish a separate Trust, rather than work with such existing organisations.
It is also interesting to consider another group which is being systematically disempowered by the venture: the UK public. As Band Aid increasingly monopolise media coverage, opportunities for the public to engage more deeply in a consideration of the factors contributing to the crisis, and the international and domestic response, are being reduced. Similarly, to ask people to make a donation to the painfully vague goal of ‘stopping the virus’ is just irresponsible. People deserve to have information regarding how their money will be spent, and by whom, before being asked to support a cause.
Having spoken of giving a voice to those in affected countries, it seems appropriate to end on the words of Robtel Neajai Pailey, a PhD researcher from Liberia whose response, when asked by Al Jazeera about the track, closely mirrors my own thoughts, “It baffles me that this old relic is being conjured up again in the 21st Century. It was offensive then, and it remains offensive now.”[vi].
Alternatives to buying the Band Aid single
- Consider supporting the DEC appeal, or the work of their member agencies directly; dec.org.uk/appeals/ebola-crisis-appeal
- The more unrestricted funds that development agencies have at their disposal, the better able they are to invest in building the resilience of communities to withstand shocks and crises such as this, and to respond quickly when they occur. Consider making a regular donation to an organisation with whose work you sympathise. Lots of information can be found on websites and annual reports.
- Be proud. As one of only a small number of countries to have committed to spending 0.7% of our national income on development interventions, the UK Department for International Development have been able to play a key role in responding to this crisis. With the general election just around the corner, make sure that this commitment is protected.
Barker, M.J. (2014) Bob Geldof and the Aid Industry: “Do They Know It’s Imperialism? Capitalism Nature Socialism, 25 (1) 96-110
Rojek, C. (2014) ‘Big Citizen’ celanthropy and its discontents International Journal of Cultural Studies, 17(2) 127-141