#BandAid30: Philanthropic Colonization of Africa, One Patronizing Lyric at a Time

December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

When Bob Geldof recently announced the revival of his song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with slightly altered lyrics, to raise money for the countries afflicted with the Ebola virus, this sparked a Twitter riot by critics the world over protesting the resurrection of the patronizing song that has only done more harm than good in Africa since its 1984 debut.

Offensive, Patronizing, Condescending

First off, to many critics, the idea that Africa needs to be saved in 2014 by washed up C-list pop artists is a perverse and offensive example of the white messiah complex. Moreover, the revision of lyrics promised by Geldof, founder of the Band Aid charity, did not make the tone of the song any less offensive, patronizing and condescending. Dripping with “White Man’s Burden”, epitomizing agony and inviting sympathy to “save Africans” and cure Ebola, the revised lyrics include:

“There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where a kiss of love can kill you
Where there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom.”

Even worse, the song’s video features a clip of what looks like the corpse of an African woman being carried out of her home. This perverse use of images of dying Africans as disaster porn is not only exploitative of their suffering, but also disrespectful to the dying who deserve dignity even in their final moments.

Perpetuating Negative Stereotypes of Africa

But even more than the offense is the long term damage that the lyrics and images of this song will do. For years, Ethiopia has been trying very hard to move away from its image as a poster child for poverty, an image that was created by the original Band Aid Charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” of 1984. The country has been trying to portray a bright new image to the world in order to attract tourists and foreign direct investment. However, this uphill battle is always hindered whenever the images of the 1984 single appear on the screens of those they are trying to persuade.

The original Band Aid campaign and similar subsequent western efforts, have led to an image of an Africa full of  people, unable to help themselves and constantly looking to foreigners for help. The constant appeal for funds by charities like Band Aid perpetuates an image of Africa as a basket case in need of western salvation. As a result, the rest of the world associates Africa only with a single story of stereotypes of disease, war, conflict, voodoo, 419 scammers, corruption, poverty, hunger, polygamy, lawlessness, child soldiers, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation.

Moreover, these stereotypical images are not associated with any one particular country. In fact very rarely are countries within Africa, allowed to have their own identity, but are bundled in together using sweeping generalizations. Though the original was recorded to raise money for Ethiopia, the stigma its simplistic message left behind affected not only that country, but a continent of 54 hugely-varied nations, with its legacy hindering investment, hurting tourism and inspiring the sort of aid that has a negative impact.

Africa – a continent rich in resources and full of unbridled potential, has sadly found itself with the challenging task of trying to erase the lingering image of despair perpetuated by psychologically powerful negative images made even more so when projected over long periods of time. These negative depictions are today available in every sphere of western life: media, academia, politics, business, international relations and popular culture.

But of course, charities like Band Aid wouldn’t really raise any money if they showed happy, healthy Africans. That said, the money raised in aid of Ebola victims will come at a price, as they will have to live with the damage of a blemished image of West Africans and Africa in general. This is only likely to exacerbate the stigmatization of and discrimination against Africans as potential Ebola-carriers that we have already seen. Shock tactics that use negative imagery may raise money in the short term, but the long-term damage will take far longer to heal. However well intentioned this Band Aid 30 campaign maybe, it will only end up promoting the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of poverty, disease and death.

Western Complicity

Western charity campaigns such as Band Aid 30 are designed to give the impression that they are “saving Africa from itself”. Yet, this view point deliberately omits and completely ignores the complicity of western governments and multinationals in causing the problems facing Africa today. Fact is, the current health crisis is a consequence of the years of IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), economic injustice and neoliberal policies tearing up local healthcare infrastructure all across Africa.

It’s noteworthy that the very same Geldof who is now out to “save Africa”, has been deeply complicit in marketing neoliberal policies to the continent with a humanitarian/ anti-poverty sheen of respectability. Along with other celebrity activists, Geldof has been pushing for the adoption of policies that continue to fail African people while preventing governments from putting in place the quality public services people require. When celebrities like Geldof and Bono perpetuated the dubious “Africa Rising” narrative of a fast-growing West Africa, especially in Liberia and Sierra Leone, this did more harm than good. The result was that GDP growth through extraction made these countries poorer in terms of not only broadly measured wealth, but also the society’s ability to contend with health and welfare crises.

For Geldof to now turn around and purport to save Africa is a case of the right hand providing solutions to problems caused by the left hand. Yet, you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Geldof’s disaster appeal is devoid of all historical context and therefore does not paint the right picture of the Ebola crisis or its structural and systemic causes. The only way to contain the current crisis and prevent a similar occurrence in future, is by first making the world aware of the long-term factors which have made the Ebola crisis possible.

Philanthropic Colonialism

According to Geldof, he was spurred into action to revive the song after he received a call from the UN to say that Ebola was “getting out of control”. But why would the UN send an SOS to charity rather than seek inter-governmental action? Yet Ebola is a public health issue to which no individual or private actor can make an effective contribution. The only way to combat this would be to have a well-resourced public health sector, well-trained health workers, good planning, logistics and coordination.

Yet, this is not the first time that the UN has overlooked the cooperation of states as the most effective means of tackling problems in Africa. Over the years, the UN has come under criticism, along with NGOs and IGOs for engaging in “philanthropic colonialism” in that these “new colonialists of Africa” see something that needs to be done, and they get to work – with or without the cooperation of states.

While this mode of operation can be good for the short term, it can be a blow to the authority of an already weak government.  And it may do nothing to ensure that a state will be able to provide for its citizens in the future. Liberia is a case in point. That Liberia – a country with one of the largest concentration of private non-state actors and aid agencies in the world is experiencing this crisis, is an indicator of the inefficiency of charity in effectively combating the virus.

The 19th century colonialists justified colonialism as being the antidote to the savage behaviors of those they colonized. This noble mission to save us from our “inferior” culture entailed the dehumanization of Africans through the perpetuation of negative stereotypes that still linger today. The policies put in place by the colonizers which led to economic exploitation, destruction of local heritage and the creation of a culture of dependency, were all touted as being essential to easing the White Man’s Burden. Today, it’s the bearers of aid, charity and philanthropy who are the new colonizers of Africa, nourishing and destroying the continent simultaneously.

Denial of African Agency

Since the Ebola crisis began, local healthcare workers in countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and DR Congo have managed to effectively deal with their outbreaks without much international help. Moreover, in countries such as Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria, transformative movements have been launched to deconstruct stigma and raise awareness about Ebola.

These are the people who are actually making a difference and “saving Africa”, yet who get no credit for their work. Rather than highlighting the Africans who are actually making a difference in this crisis, the western media has instead focused their coverage on hysteria-fuelled reportage on the disease.

Moreover, increasing celebrity activism and the celebritisation of global problems has meant that the people whose lives are affected are not listened to. Instead, it’s the celebrities who become experts: Clooney for Darfur, Bono for Poverty and now Geldof for Ebola.

This move to deny the ability of Africans to solve their own problems only serves to disempower African governments and people by negating their agency, and instead promoting western celebrities as the true agents of change in West Africa. This erases the effectiveness of local efforts, by making it appear as though western charitable interventions are what saved poor diseased Africa once again.

White Messiah Complex

Band Aid 30 is nothing but a sexy campaign designed to use an emotive song to sway impressionable westerners  eager to jump onto fashionable social causes promoted by celebrities. It’s yet another classic sign of white saviorism, in this case with self-aggrandizing celebrities desperate to seem compassionate, searching for saviordom by swooping in as savior.

Sadly, this is nothing new. It’s in fact a very popular paternalistic narrative that always places westerners in the position of benevolent elders or messiahs, helping out poor, diseased Africans, on their constantly blighted continent. However, such assistance always fails to come off as genuine, but rather being given as a way of affirming the traditional belief of white cultural superiority. By portraying Africans as inferior, westerners are privileged as superior. This only serves to contribute to the dehumanization of Africans.

Band Aid 30 is exploiting African misfortunes as an opportunity for which “saving” them yields profits and photo ops for washed up artists seeking to remain relevant and unknown artists out to make a name for themselves. With Band Aid marching in to “save the day”, the only people set to benefit the most from this “good cause” are the celebrities and their images.

If the purpose of Bob Geldof and others is really to help the Ebola response rather than burnish their own profiles as modern day saints, they would donate money behind the scenes. The money that will be raised through their Ebola single could easily be raised by these rich musicians among themselves and their friends.

Western Guilt-Washing

There’s a powerful psychological feeling of being moral by “giving back”, an emotional high from altruism, which allows westerners to feel as if they were saving the day. They get to pat themselves on the back and bask in morality at the little good they have done for those poor Africans far away. This effort places them in the ranks of the kindhearted and they get to feel good about themselves for “doing something”.

It would seem that wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created around the world through war and pollution, the West is once again turning to Africa for redemption. As more lives and communities are destroyed by a global economic system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the West, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” This is a form of “conscience-laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than others need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. This is guilt-washing the White Man’s Burden, which enables westerners to sleep better at night.

Escapism

Typically, other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In fact, it is this lack of knowledge of other cultures that makes them easier to help. In this context, the decontextualized disease in West Africa becomes an easy moral choice for western do-gooders. Its noteworthy that Geldof’s own Ireland is regarded as having “the worst managed healthcare system in the developed world”. Yet, unlike the problems of Africans far away, the failing health care system in Ireland, which is connected to larger political narratives, isn’t as easily pitied as dying Ebola victims.

Its instructive that one of the main problems plaguing the Irish healthcare system is the privatization of the public health sector by populating it with private for-profit institutions. As in Liberia – private actors were favored over state actors in solving national problems in Ireland. Therefore the challenges facing the Irish healthcare system today were caused by the same neoliberal mindset that led to the breakdown of healthcare systems in West Africa and the inability to contain the Ebola virus. If charity truly begins at home, then shouldn’t Geldof be focusing his creativity in writing a song for his own crippled Irish healthcare system, rather than West Africans thousands of miles away?

The need to feel like a savior is understandable especially in those whose lives are full of tragedy that they do not want to face or resolve. However, this often causes the person to take actions that hurt more than help. These are the pitfalls of the “saving Africa” charitable-industrial complex: buoyed by the imagined nobility of their endeavor, the saviors fail to consider the needs of those impacted by the problem and end up doing more harm than good.

Band Aid Legacy: More Harm Than Good

The announcement of Geldof’s 2014 revival of “Do They Know Its Christmas?” led to the penning of a lengthy criticism highlighting the legacy of Band Aid as follows:

“But the harsh truth is that for all the generosity, for all the good intentions, those heartfelt efforts ended up doing more harm than good in Ethiopia. Band Aid kick started an age of celebrity activism – and with it the idea that simplistic campaigns and slick slogans can solve complex global problems…

Inevitably, Ethiopia exerts a special hold on the aid industry after Band Aid influenced an entire generation, and is among the biggest beneficiaries of the global aid boom. There was a 200-fold increase in the number of charities operating there after 1984, although it remains one of the world’s poorest places. As in other developing nations, this influx of outsiders distorts local priorities and entrenches corrupt elite in power. The flood of donations even allowed the repressive Ethiopian regime to reduce spending on the disaster at home and spend billions of dollars buying arms from abroad…

So what of the long-term legacy of the Band Aid phenomenon? Today, Ethiopia remains a despotic state that does not just steal land from the poor. It also shoots pro-democracy protesters, locks up dissidents, tortures political prisoners, gang-rapes women, jails journalists and uses food aid to starve the opposition. Tragically, this is the sad legacy of Band Aid.”

If the legacy of Band Aid 1984 is anything to go by, disaster appeals through songs for charity is not the best way to fix African crises. Geldof and his Band Aid need to stop fixing band aids on wounds inflicted by their own western governments and multinationals. They would be more useful if they instead used the power of their celebrity to influence changes in predatory western government policies towards Africa, rather than promoting dazzling charitable interventions which only end up keeping the existing structural and systemic failures in African health systems in place.

The western media is also complicit in that it chooses to focus on negative stereotypes of Africa and thereafter offers solutions to “save Africa”. Through the reproduction of this negative idea of Africa, the media offers a continuing invitation to “philanthropic colonialism”. Instead of focusing attention on what Geldof and co. can do to “save Africa”, western media should shine the spotlight on how we ourselves are implementing African solutions to African problems, providing an African directed approach, instead of a western pop star-determined one.

And western consumers tempted to buy this single need to realize that Africa doesn’t want to be saved. Africa needs the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with the international community, we ourselves are capable of tackling the challenges facing the continent. And that includes Ebola.

Update: December 22: A British study is released stating that:

“Reforms advocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may have contributed to the rapid spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Researchers found that the healthcare systems in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia had been weakened by the IMF’s requirement of economic reforms that cut government spending and capped the public sector wage bill. Consequently, the countries had been unable to hire nurses and doctors and pay them adequately.”

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