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:
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.
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.
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.