Bob Geldof’s got the band back together to release a new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise funds for fighting the Ebola outbreak. Just like the original version, released in 1984 to raise money for the victims of the Ethiopian famine, this year’s version (Band Aid 30) features a whole group of celebrities, from Bono to X-Factor runners up. But as soon as it was released, the song came under fire from commentators in both the West and Africa, who saw it as patronising and a lyrical ‘White Man’s Burden‘. So what are the problems with the song? And how should we react when the West tries to help the Rest?
Even the most kindhearted person has got to admit that the lyrics are pretty bad. Lines like “a world outside your window…a world of dread and fear” and “the Christmas bells that are ringing, are clanging chimes of doom” aren’t exactly the most thought out. But as many have pointed out, they are also surprisingly ignorant about Africa. The whole concept of asking whether Africans know it’s Christmas is a bit odd, considering that Christianity is one of the two biggest religions in Africa. “No peace and joy in West Africa” isn’t exactly correct either, seeing as the Ebola outbreak has only seriously affected three countries. This is a mistake more people have made, with one Dutch university suspending all student trips to the entire continent. But the real problem with the song is not the lyrics, but the concept.
While I’m sure everyone taking part is doing so for good reasons, the nature of the song and the images of white Western celebrities saving Africa is seen as incredibly patronising by people living there. Al-Jazeera interviewed a number of people from Ethiopia to Nigeria, who all felt frustrated at the image being painted of Africa as a suffering, helpless continent. When it comes to Ebola, Africa hasn’t been helpless. Countries like Nigeria, Mali and Congo have very successfully contained their Ebola outbreaks, much to the surprise of some in the West.
This doesn’t mean though that we shouldn’t help. Too often cynics claim that any foreign aid just sinks into the pockets of local elites, and that it’s better to give it up. Or they claim that all foreign aid and charity is colonialism all over again, ignoring the efforts of international volunteers across the continent who are quietly doing their best to help out. Without volunteer medics in Liberia and Sierra Leone, many more would have died. However, it might be good to rethink how we do certain forms of aid, like supporting local initiatives. A good start would be focussing on some of the African songs against Ebola, rather than “Do they know it’s Christmas”.
We should feel able to support African countries fighting Ebola and to contribute to eliminating poverty and disease in parts of Africa. Without the work of Western charities, certain issues would be a lot worse – though without European powers having interfered in the 19th century the continent would have much less issues altogether. But at the same time, we need to do this in the right way. Aid needs to be given where it ‘s requested and where it can be used well by locals on the ground who know what they are doing. And it certainly shouldn’t be given in a way that draws attention to ourselves – especially when you’re a millionaire celebrity.
Seeing we’re talking about a Christmas song, maybe a reminder from the man whose birth Christmas celebrates would be an appropriate ending – “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.”