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They know it's Christmas

- November 17, 2014

Today marks the release of a new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” a charity single released by Bob Geldof’s Band Aid 30 in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original 1984 song. The first release was created to raise money for a then-unfolding famine in Ethiopia. The slightly-rewritten 2014 version is designed to raise funds for the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Early sales numbers indicate that the single is well on the way to being a number one hit. It raised $1.6 million dollars in pre-orders a few moments after the song premiered on a British television program Sunday night. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” is also, for the moment, the top-selling song on iTunes.
While raising money for a cause like Ebola is generally a good thing, like many who study Africa, I’m skeptical of this effort. Band Aid’s efforts betray an ignorance of Africa and perpetuate negative stereotypes and the “White Savior” narrative. Moreover, those who purchase the single or make other donations to Band Aid have no assurance that their money will be used well.
1. They know it’s Christmas.
People in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone definitely know it’s Christmas, because many of them are Christian. The latest round of Afrobarometer surveys found that in a weighted sample of respondents in Liberia,  87 percent identify as Christian. 46 percent of Sierra Leoneans identify as Christian while about 54 percent identify as Muslim. In Guinea, 9 percent of the population identify as Christian, while 89 percent are Muslim. The fact that West Africa is religiously diverse and some areas are predominantly Muslim, however, gives us no reason to expect widespread ignorance of the fact that Christmas exists and that celebrations of Christmas occur during a specific season, or think that Muslims in Guinea and Sierra Leone are generally unaware when their Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas. This notion is supported not least by the fact that Christmas is a public holiday in both Sierra Leone and Guinea.
2.  The song is demeaning.
The original version “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was awash in negative stereotypes of Africa and the Ethiopian people Live Aid purported to help. The song treated Africa as an homogeneous place, “where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow” and “where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.” It also claimed that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime,” a factual inaccuracy that betrayed the lyricists’ ignorance of both basic geography and the giants of 20th-century literature.
In addition to conflating an entire continent with one country, Band Aid’s portrayal of the crisis ignored the man-made dimensions of Ethiopia’s 1984 famine; people were starving not simply because of the regional drought, but because of direct interference by governing officials who used starvation to punish the ethnic groups they considered to be political enemies.
The 30-year anniversary version features rewritten lyrics that somehow manage to be even more inaccurate than the original ones were. Let’s start with these lines:

There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear

Where a kiss of love can kill you, and there’s death in every tear

And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.

The idea that no one in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea will be celebrating Christmas, or that “Christmas bells…are the clanging chimes of doom” is beyond ludicrous; it betrays a total ignorance of the importance of Christianity in each country’s culture, the sense of joy and celebration that can arise among all people even in the most dire of circumstances, and the fact that most West Africans – even in the Ebola outbreak zone – are not in fact suffering from Ebola. While the epidemic is serious and has affected far too many people, it has still affected very small percentages of each country’s population. The latest World Health Organization estimate counts a total of 14,413 confirmed cases of Ebola that can be traced to the West African outbreak. In the case of each of the three most heavily-affected countries, far less than 1 percent of each country’s population has been diagnosed with the disease.

Ebola infection rate data: World Health Organization; Population data: CIA World Factbook

We know that the number of confirmed cases does not reflect the actual number of people infected with Ebola in the course of this outbreak. But even if we were to quintuple the number of cases in each country, the epidemic has still only affected 1 percent or less of each country’s population.

This point is not meant to diminish the severity or seriousness of the outbreak in any way, nor should we let slip from our minds for even a moment the tragedy of the 5,177 lives already lost to Ebola. It is, however, important to understand that lyrics like “there’s death in every tear” are completely inaccurate. Moreover, for the typical consumer of pop music who might download the Band Aid track without doing much background research, it gives the incorrect impression that everyone in West Africa (the affected states are never actually named in the song) is spreading Ebola with every tear shed for the lives lost.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is othering. It treats “Africans” as an homogeneous whole of diseased people who are suffering without help from outsiders. As we have previously discussed, spreading such inaccurate and misleading information can lead to dangerous prejudice and discrimination against people of African descent, affecting their employment opportunities, health, and safety.

3. It mostly ignores Africans & their efforts to fight Ebola.

Of the 30 artists who participated in recording “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” 2014, only one, Angelique Kidjo, is African. The song perpetuates the myth of the “White Savior,” portraying Africans as passive and helpless people in need of external assistance from white people in the global north. This is not reflective of reality. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” ignores the many African organizations working to fight the virus and the countless, heroic health workers who have been on the front lines of the epidemic since it began.

4. We don’t know where the money’s going. 

It turns out to be pretty difficult to get any solid information on where funds raised from the sale of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” are going.  Buried in the Band Aid Web site’s Terms and Conditions, we learn that, “All proceeds from the Band Aid 30 competition will be donated to the intervention and prevention of the spread of Ebola.” Setting aside the question of how this effort constitutes a “competition,” donors are being asked to put a tremendous amount of trust in the organization. The Band Aid Trust’s official activity is still listed as “relief of hunger and poverty in Ethiopia and the neighbourhood thereof.”  From available evidence, it appears that the Trust has not yet decided to whom to give the funds donors have been told will be used to fight Ebola. Band Aid might give the funds to reputable aid agencies like those in the British DEC Fund or Doctors without Borders. Or they might not. Donors to this effort have no guarantees that their funds will be well spent.

This is particularly problematic with an organization like Band Aid whose record of effectiveness is questionable. As Peter Gill shows in his book “Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid,” Ethiopia’s authoritarian Derg regime often attempted to manipulate NGO activities to serve government aims its forced resettlement schemes that exacerbated the effects of the famine. There is a raging debate among experts over whether Band Aid did more good or harm, or whether the unintended consequences of its efforts killed as many people as it saved.  There are also longstanding allegations that some of the money raised for Ethiopians through the Band Aid/Live Aid efforts actually paid for weapons that caused further harm in the region. As of this writing, donors have no assurances from Band Aid that their money will be used well.

What should a person of good will who wants to help those suffering from Ebola do? Skip the bad music and give directly to DEC, MSF, or another reputable organization. Even better, support local actors who are working in their own communities to help through Africa Responds, which channels resources to pre-vetted community organizations.  The Band Aid single will raise a lot of money, and we can hope that the charities selected to benefit from it will use those resources better than they were used the first time around. But this is not the most effective way to help. It isn’t worth the “othering” of Africans – and the very real dangers people of African ancestry living all over the world face as a result of such negative stereotypes.