Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem "deconstructs" the politics of the Band Aid Program, warning us to pay attention to the pitfalls in charity, even of the most charitable.
The Band Aid Album, DO THEY KNOW ITS CHRISTMAS TIME, which sold millions of copies and directly raised even more Millions of dollars for the relief of famine in Ethiopia 20 years ago is being again being released in time for this Christmas. As in 1984 it is widely expected that the album will be a runaway success in the Christmas charts.
Apart from the millions of Dollars raised then and to be raised now what both the album and the Live Aid concert it inspired in July 1985 (which was watched reportedly by over 1.5 billion people across the world) achieved was to raise awareness about hunger, starvation and famine in Africa. The bloated tummies of underfed babies clutching at emaciated breasts of a hunger- ravished mother or the multitudes of flies and army of other insects holidaying on the mouths and bodies of desperate children, women and men in refugee camps became the dominant image of Africa in global media. What we saw with our eyes on televisions became engraved permanently on our minds. It was successful in causing almost a stampede of humanitarian concern and focus on Africa.
However it had its own unintended consequences then and twenty years on these negative consequences have greater impact that are perpetuating the popular perception that Africa is a basket case continent and Africans are hopeless and helpless people.
The fact that the same song could be re released without altering the lyrics (though a largely new group super star musicians) at all and with similar accompanying horrible pictures on televisions, in newspapers and other more widely accessible multi media today than then speak volumes. It is either an admission of failure of previous efforts or a confirmation that Afrika is indeed a basket case that is irredeemable constantly needing regular reminder of the rest of the world.
I am particularly irked about that dubious line: ' Thank God tonight its them instead of you'! The only variation on the theme is that instead of targeting Ethiopia last time around it is Sudan that is competing for the sympathy of the West as Africa's most hellish of hells!
It is an indictment of first, Africa's leaders and also the powerful countries , individuals and institutions within the international community that despite all the awareness and pangs of conscience in the last 20 years fellow human beings can still be facing such penury, humiliation and starvation in a world with ‘enough for our needs but not enough for our greed’ as Mahatma Ghandi once put it.
However as Africans we can be disgusted, ashamed and rightly critical of the deliberate use / abuse of those horrible images that strip us of our dignity and humanity but we should be more outraged that Africans (through acts of both omission and commission) have been largely responsible for such continuous misery inflicted on our own peoples. Band Aid, Live Aid or any of the busy body Western NGOs raising huge sums of money on these images did not create them, they are merely exploiting them for their multi-million dollar humanitarian mega business. Therefore the first responsibility and admission of guilt is ours and ours alone. It is up to us to put an end to the brutalisation and extreme pauperisation our own peoples.
But the Humanitarian agencies also have to ask themselves whether their chosen methods have worked or working. Or if the end now justifies the means and that end is about their unaccountable power to play god with the destiny of poor people by merchandising our people’s suffering. They often defend the use of the bad images as necessary to raise awareness and prick the conscience of the world (most of the time they mean, Europeans and Americans!). One is bound to ask of Live Aid and Band Aid that after 20 years what the harvest of this conscience safari has been if they have to use the same images and record two decades later.
It has always intrigued me why the conscience of the West can only be pricked by degradation of other peoples. The process of getting westerners to part with their donations end up dehumanizing and degrading Africa. Instead of creating the much needed understanding and solidarity it creates an unequal power relations with psychological hang-ups about superior and inferior peoples, one a permanent Donor and the other is a permanent supplicant. That one-way street does need lead to understanding rather it institutionalizes 'we know best' attitude on the part of the humanitarian industry. It also make the humanitarian agencies to be married to bad news from Africa and thereby becoming professional merchants of our misery. It will seem that the worse the situation is the better for their fund raising drives! Needless to say that this breads cynicism among those who are supposed to be grateful for the kind help they are receiving.
The more important lesson of the 20 years of BAND Aid must surely be bringing into sharp relief the naivete of those years that symbolic acts of genuine human solidarity will somehow change the hearts and minds of the powerful both in Africa and internationally. They can throw a few coins at the problem to appease immediate pressure and gain public mileage but the real change will only come from raising the power questions that turn drought into famine. It is politics and power that makes Africans seemingly more vulnerable to hunger and starvation than other peoples. Africa is not a poor continent but our peoples are poor because they are powerless over their resources. People are powerless in their countries and our countries are impotent in global power relations. That is why we get fleeced on all fronts.
Charity may offer an instant fire brigade service but it cannot be a substitute for sustainable long-term solution. Why is it that Ethiopia that received massive humanitarian support twenty years ago is today one of the least recipient of long-term development Aid in Africa? Even if it gets more help in Aid as long as it continues to get bad terms of trade and returns for its Coffee and other raw materials it, like other African countries, it will continue to run deficit economies needing aid and with larger begging bowls. Many of our countries especially those beloved by IMF/World Bank and Western Countries as ‘doing well’ have become Aid addicts while the humanitarian interventionists and NGOs have become Aid pushers and the West as the big dealers.
The extreme poverty faced by many Africans in a majority of our countries is structural and unless both the internal and external dimensions of that unequal power relations are transformed I can assure you that in another 20 years, when Bob Geldof and many of his original collaborators would have become Old Age Pensioners (OAPs) they may still be organizing Band Aid 3. I think Saint Bob and Bono in the past few years have come to realize this and that's why they are talking less about charity but more upfront on terms of trade, equity, Global justice, Debt cancellation, etc. Soon they will have to engage with reparation for Africa for both historical and contemporary depletion and pillage of the continent and her peoples and also the structural linkage between the prosperity of the West and the poverty of global humanity.
This shift is necessary in order to build a global alliance (rather than self –obsessed angst –driven Western do-gooders and their selective conscience) that can truly make poverty history in this new millennium.