OPINION: Let in light and banish shade – in defence of Band Aid 30

Simopn BurneSimon Burne dissects the criticisms of Band Aid’s reworked version of Do They Know it’s Christmas and finds them wanting

 

 

When Bob Geldof and Midge Ure first produced their single Do They Know it’s Christmas? in 1984 in response to the Ethiopian famine, there was a significant furore about its lyrics at the time and also a very negative reaction amongst development professionals about the stigmatisation of Africa as a victim unable to help itself.

Some of the original lines, particularly the one sung by Bono (“Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you”), have been criticised over many years. In his 2006 book The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly, an economist, characterised the efforts of Western celebrities to promote aid to Africa as patronising and misguided.

“I actually feel quite sorry for celebrities. They’re damned if they give money or time, and they’re damned if they don’t.”

It seems like the same arguments are resurfacing over the new version of the song that aims to raise funds to combat Ebola. In the Telegraph there was an article by Bryony Gordon and the next day an article in the Guardian by Anglo-Ghanaian singer Fuse ODG attacking Band Aid, the song and all things celebrity. The main arguments are:

  • It’s patronising and condescending: do they know it’s Christmas – of course they do!

  • It paints a picture of a continent that is far removed from the vibrant resource-rich continent that Africa is, with seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies

  • The images are undignified, shock tactics that raise money but do long-term damage

  • Celebrities should just give the money themselves rather than expect others to buy their rotten song. They are hypocrites for telling others to take action while avoiding taxes themselves.

Let’s take a look at each of those arguments:

Patronising

The lyrics of a great many of pop songs seem trite and pretty vacuous. Many pop songs do little to make the world a better place, and many (such as a number of hip hop raps) have lyrics of a distinctly dubious nature. I think we can safely agree with this accusation, but reply that most people buy the record because of its cause, not because of its sophisticated lyric or melodic complexity. Even Midge Ure was critical of the original song, saying it sounded like Doctor Who. I’m not convinced that many people’s views of the world and Africa will be unduly influenced by this song – in the same way it’s arguable that the rise in popularity of hip hop hasn’t coincided with an increase in violent crime and isn’t the cause of crime that already exists.

False and negative images

The false and negative images are shown on TV 24/7 by news channels and other media outlets. Just as Michael Buerk broke the Ethiopia famine story, so it is the media that broke the Ebola crisis. Unfortunately, any disaster, natural or otherwise, tends to produce harrowing images which do not paint an image of a ‘normal’ country. It is, after all, harrowing images that force the world into action. If we hadn’t seen those dreadful images in Ethiopia, or Sri Lanka, or Syria, politicians would not have acted, and more people would have suffered and died.

“How do we draw the world’s attention to something dreadful without showing dreadful images?”

So let’s not blame Band Aid for forcing action and support. Let’s rather blame politicians and world leaders for failing to take action earlier to avert the suffering that is now happening. It’s simply wrong to blame the messenger – be it the media or the pop star. It feels like Gordon and Fuse ODG would rather we brushed the whole story under the table than admit to there being a crisis – in case it gives a false image of a whole continent.

Undignified

I confess to being horribly shocked by the intrusiveness of reporters, thrusting cameras and microphones into the faces of children who have just lost their parents, asking “how do you feel?” I feel that the invasion privacy by the world’s media gets worse every year. The hunger for instant 24-hour news feeds this, and I have no hesitation in condemning it.

But there is a dilemma here. How do we draw the world’s attention to something dreadful without showing dreadful images? How do we galvanise public opinion into demanding that ‘something must be done’ if we don’t show what needs to stop? This is a central challenge for any campaign – either to change policy or to raise money. It has certainly been the fundraiser’s dilemma since the dawn of fundraising time. Many charities have tried to move away to purely positive images and have found that response rates and giving levels drop. There are also academic studies that show that ‘negative’ images elicit higher levels of giving.

We must always show respect, especially in images, and we must wherever possible give the beneficiaries a powerful voice in both the ask and the follow up. I do think that all the celebrity-driven fundraisers – Comic Relief, Children in Need, Text Santa, Band Aid – rely too much on celebrities featuring and talking. But they get people watching and aware of the issues.

Celebrities

I actually feel quite sorry for celebrities. They’re damned if they give money or time, and they’re damned if they don’t. There are many very generous celebrities – Elton John springs to mind – who don’t necessarily make much of a song and dance about giving. But many charities seem to see celebrities as a bottomless well of generosity, and they get bombarded with requests. They are pretty much forced into a default position of saying “no”.

We have become a culture driven by celebrity – something I personally regret – as it places value on fame rather than experience/wisdom/real achievement. But that is the reality and we place celebrities on ever-higher pedestals so that we can then take great pleasure in knocking them off. So, of course, we expect them to do lots for charity, but then berate them for not doing it in the right way.

 

So let’s put the teacup away, and find some real storms to get concerned about. There are enough really bad things going on in the world for us to fight, rather than getting exercised about a bunch of celebrities singing an average pop song raising a large amount of money to fight a killer disease.

  • Simon Burne is director of fundraising and marketing at The Children’s Society and a member of Rogare’s advisory panel. He is also a former chair of the Institute of Fundraising.

5 comments for “OPINION: Let in light and banish shade – in defence of Band Aid 30

  1. Ian MacQuillin
    November 28, 2014 at 9:13 am

    What has disappointed me most about the criticism of the new Band Aid song is that what valid points there are about the use of shock images, dignity of beneficiaries and the like, are drowned out by the usual headline-grabbing shibboleths ranged against celebrities’ involvement with charities and ‘patronising’ or ‘post-colonial’ Western aid efforts.

    The discussion about this blog by Rogare’s editorial committee (a process all Critical Fundraising blogs go through prior to publication) raised the question of the evidence base for claims over whether fundraising such as Band Aid has or has not influenced public perception of Africa. This paper from the Centre for African Studies at Leeds University was put forward: http://lucas.leeds.ac.uk/files/2014/01/Africa-UK-Journalism-Conference-Paper.pdf

    This concludes that “mainstream media maintains and propagates distorted and stereotypical perspectives of Africa”. This is not just the news media’s focus on disasters, but also programmes “that feature African wildlife and exotic lifestyles”.

    The media stereotype of Africa, if these arguments are correct, is the soil that allows the likes of Band Aid to take root. And to extend the horticultural metaphor a bit further, there are lots of flowers growing in this garden of African stereotypes, which a lot of people seem to like looking at. But when Band Aid begins to sprout, everyone rushes for the weedkiller.

    If David Attenborough is actually an equal, if not bigger, culprit in stereotyping Africa than Bob Geldoff, I wonder why it’s Band Aid that that’s being singled out for such harsh criticism.

    It couldn’t be, could it, that it’s because Band Aid is also raising money whereas BBC2 wildlife documentaries merely leave use with a sense of stereotypical African awe that we actually quite enjoy?

    If so, then perhaps some (though of course not all) of the criticisms of Band Aid have been triggered by, as I argued in a previous blog, Band Aid 30’s fundraisers having disturbed people’s equilibrium regarding charitable giving.

  2. Julian Baggini
    December 10, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    The criticism of Band Aid 30 has been OTT, but it is not entirely misplaced. Big media fundraisers like this do set the tone and create images, and they should be the right ones. The problem here is that this reinforces the “us and them” mentality, that it is about use helping them out. All it would have taken was more African involvement to turn that around, to see it as us working with them – or rather, it all being us.
    Fundraising should not only be judged in terms of money raised. It’s also about changing perceptions. That’s why it is legitimate to criticise Band Aid 30 for creating the wrong ones, while praising it for raising a lot of money. It’s not either/or: all bad or all good.

    • Ian MacQuillin
      December 12, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks for your comments Julian.

      One of the most ridiculous things that I have ever heard was when a speaker at the recent BOND conference declared that fundraisers and programme delivery staff are at “opposite ends of the ideological spectrum”.

      Utterly ridiculous.

      On the spectrum of attitudes about international aid, at the opposite end to that occupied by a charity’s programme delivery staff I suggest we’d find characters such as economic libertarians who believe how they disposes of their wealth is entirely a matter for them, people who believe they have no social duty alleviate poverty in the developing world, and racists who believe people in need in the developing world are the architects of their own suffering and thus deserve everything that happens to them.

      But that’s not where you’ll find fundraisers, who are of course at the same point on this “spectrum” as their programme delivery colleagues. The small difference between them is in now they think their beneficiaries should be presented in marketing materials.

      That statement, however, gets the nub of this issue. Charities need the money that fundraisers bring in but are too keen to disown the ‘necessary evil’ when fundraisers do something programme staff don’t approve of (however, I don’t see too many charities turning down the money raised by their “ideologically opposed” fundraisers).

      If as Julian says, fundraising ought to challenges preconceptions as well as raise money, then that is a strategic decision that the whole organisation needs to arrive at and, because the evidences from charities that have tried this approach suggests they will raise less money as a result, the fundraising targets need to be adjusted accordingly – there’ll be less money raised, it will take longer and it’ll cost more to do it.

      But what is not acceptable is for charities to expect their fundraisers to achieve two objectives (challenging preconceptions AND raising money) but only set targets for and measure them against one of those objectives (money), yet castigate them when they fail at the other (challenging preconceptions).

      Fundraisers are not the enemy in this scenario. The enemy is the horrible situation faced by charities beneficiaries. Fundraisers are doing their best to alleviate this situation, just as programme delivery staff are.

  3. December 10, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    It is very difficult indeed to raise funds whilst showing pictures of very happy people where all is fine. Of course we have to show pictures which stir people to action rather than complacency. Similarly, news items have to show life in the raw. This doesn’t just apply to Africa – when disaster happens anywhere, journalists can’t say ‘floods and famine here but don’t worry, everything’s fine elsewhere’!

    Celebrities can be overused and overrated – however, this is a song as well as a campaign, and they are rather pivotal to its production and sales. Well done Band Aid – you reach places other fundraising cannot reach. Your story has to be dramatic. Inevitably the message may be superficial and the words lightweight – but it achieves huge sums of money which are used to change lives.

  4. Valerie Morton
    December 11, 2014 at 11:23 am

    What concerns me about the criticism of BandAid 30 (despite agreeing with the principles behind many of the comments) is that there is a wider issue here about the rights of donors to have views, opinions and motivations which may not necessarily be the same as those of the charity/fundraiser. Many donors do have what may be perceived as a patronising attitude to the donor/recipient relationship and others are giving because of the personal benefit (status for example). I don’t know any charity that gives its donors an exam before accepting their donation to check the donor’s values and beliefs match those of the charity (and I am not aware of any that check the employer of an individual donor and refuse to accept donations if the company is one with which they would not otherwise engage).

    Charities have an enormous and valuable role in educating the public about issues such as inequality, social need and the role of charities but we do not have rights over a donor’s motivation or perspective.
    The BandAid30 issue has come about because we (and the education system) have failed to get key messages across (so how about we take responsibility rather than blaming the celebrities?) and because, thankfully, the world is made up of an eclectic range of people

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