I write this by the light of my Christmas tree (oh yes). I’ve had this festive post up my sleeve ever since I went to an event at the Frontline Club called ‘Covering poverty in an indifferent world’, a panel discussion featuring several people who were directly involved with Live Aid and related campaigns.
At Christmas, Band Aid (or Band Aid 20) can be guaranteed to make an appearance, if not in our nostalgic Christmas music selection, then definitely through the loud speakers in Sainsbury’s. I had always been a bit snotty about the song words: ‘of course they know it’s Christmas in Africa – there are more Christians there than a zillion other places!’ I would think smugly to myself. Not to mention that of course there will be snow in places like on the top of Kilimanjaro. However, the discussion at the Frontline Club enlightened me somewhat, so I swallowed a humble mince pie or two and decided to write this post.
What would you do if your heart suddenly broke for a certain group of people and you weren’t a doctor or anything like that, but you could write a catchy tune or two and get yourself actually listened to? Leading as that question may be, it’s hard to continue to be holier than thou about Band Aid etc. once you’ve tried to answer it. Putting myself in Bono and Bob’s moccasins may not have made me like the song, but it has shown me that they were merely doing their best with what they had. Sure, they were rather ambitious and not everything they hoped for was achieved, but an awful lot was (40 million kids are now in school, and 6 million people have received antiretrovirals according to one of the panellists). Well done.
It is important to watch cynicism when it comes to these things. Even those centrally involved in Live Aid, Live 8, the subsequent One campaign etc. say that it is a real shame that celebrities have to be the ones getting the issues heard (for example Bono said this in a related episode of Why Poverty – watch it if you possibly can!). In a world like ours which worships celebrity, are we going to listen in such great numbers to simply an uber-informed aid worker? On the one hand, yes, music moves people more than facts do, but it shouldn’t have to take a big name to get someone to help someone else. The sad fact is, it often does.
Here is where I need to highlight a caveat or two though. There is a very legitimate criticism concerning the rhetoric that has been used and perpetuated in campaigns like Live Aid. As Professor Chouliaraki eloquently put it at the panel discussion, this language has involved a so-called ‘salvation’ form of solidarity message. This could be crudely described as ‘the rich white people help the helpless other’. Many parts of Africa, including Ethiopia have rapidly developed since the 80s famine and so there is now a different story to tell. Quite rightly the ‘salvation’ imagery can and has been called a patronising, damaging stereotype, especially in the context of ‘Africa rising‘.
A friend showed me this hilarious video that brilliantly highlights the problem (“Africa, we need to make a difference in Norway!”)
The second caveat is to simply say this. Prof. Chouliaraki pointed out that charity communications nowadays often avoid portraying those whose needs are being met by the charity at all. The focus is often on the self and the “feel-good-factor” for having done something good. It is in this context that adding celebrity gloss to a charity campaign makes so much sense. Celebrities primary function in society is to sell us things. They sell their music, their films, even their lifestyles. They exist to endorse things that we consume. It is a sad and a dangerous state of affairs that we have to be sold charity, just like we’re sold perfumes. Perhaps next time you give to charity think: “is this more about me or the person who needs my gift?”