Should Band Aid be resurrected?

Published by The Observer (16th November, 2014)

The Observer debate with Tim Ingham (Editor, Music Week)

IB: Absolutely not. The only good thing is to learn the toe-curling lyrics of that patronising song are being rewritten. Not just because Ethiopia has a longer tradition of Christianity than the British Isles, but all those awful lines about ‘them’ and ‘us’. It even refers to Africa as a place ‘where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow’ – an astonishingly misleading portrayal of Ethiopia, let alone the rest of a continent of 54 countries filled with such wondrous diversity of landscapes and wealth of natural resources.

Sadly, the words revealed the arrogant attitudes that lay behind a well-intentioned venture. This was seen with the absence of African artists at the subsequent concerts supposedly to save their continent. And this has been seen ever since with the aid boom sparked by this record, so corrosive in destroying the image of Africa with its ceaseless negative imagery. This is the real legacy of Band Aid.

TI: Perhaps it’s flippant to begin with a technical quibble, but actually there is no line about ‘them’ and ‘us’; I think you’re referring to one of the rare occasions in Bono’s career where he seems genuinely overcome by unfettered humility: ‘Tonight, thank God, it’s them… instead of you.’ To me, that line – by far the best in a song plagued by clunky and patronising lyrics (‘There won’t be snow in Africa, this Christmastime’ anyone?) – sums up the brilliance of Band Aid: a loud, dumb production that simply won’t let you escape its fervid finger-pointing. Like its well-meaning creator, it refuses to be ignored or withered by cynicism – which is exactly why it’s raised hundreds of millions for some of the world’s most disgracefully treated, desperate citizens. Frankly, I’m not sure the countless people whose lives have been directly salvaged by a pop song care what Observer readers think of ‘the image of Africa’. In 1984, Band Aid grabbed the attention and sympathy of a UK population wrapped up in what we can now see as the nascent stage of ugly mass consumerism. If it can yank our heads up away from our iPhones and our email for a few seconds in 2014, it can only be a good thing.

IB: No, I was referring to the entire song. And that would be the same Irish singer who appointed himself the representative of ‘voiceless’ Africans? And the same Bono who, like Bob Geldof, uses tax-avoidance tactics while exhorting nations to hand over more of other people’s taxes to his pet cause, which seems all the more hypocritical when capital flight is such a big problem in Africa. Examine what really happened after Band Aid, when foreign donors inadvertently assisted a despotic government in lethal resettlements that killed people faster than famine, and ask why the biggest recipient of British aid today is an Ethiopian regime that kills, tortures, rapes, jails, steals land and burns from their homes so many ‘disgracefully treated, desperate citizens’? Famine is a political problem; simplistic gestures often end up exacerbating issues on the ground. Cynicism and realism are very different creatures.

You can sneer at concerns over the image of Africa, but I have seen and heard the anger this causes many people across the continent. As studies have shown, this legacy fanned distorted ideas about Africa in the west, impacting disastrously on everything from trade and tourism to asylum, immigration and visa policies. And actually, it is mass consumerism and mobile technology that is now helping drive rapid change in many nations there and powering some of the planet’s fastest-growing economies.

TI: Nailed it: Band Aid is a simplistic response to a complex problem. It’s also a compassionate, urgent and human one. The alternative is doing nothing. Bob Geldof may not have contemplated every potential repercussion of the mountain of money he raised in 1984; which rebels might intercept the funding and which despotic tyrants would siphon off cash for their own malicious ends. He was too heartbroken by the sight of millions of children starving to death, and the bubble of ignorance obscuring the ‘developed’ world from helping – or even acknowledging – the problem.So what did Band Aid achieve? Well, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure changed, overnight, the western world’s attitude and willingness to help its fellow man. Their song, complete with its clumsy lyrics and infuriatingly chant-friendly coda, saved countless lives. The positive impact of Band Aid is greater than the direct salvation of the starving, though: it is a perennial reminder of our own myopic obsessions, and our increasing inclination to always consider ourselves first.

The mobile technology you mention was supposed to bring the world closer together – to regularly remind us to empathise with the best and worst of our brethren abroad. It didn’t. We’re now more dogmatically insular and engrossed by consumerism than at any point in recent history. For the majority of Brits, the growing Ebola crisis remains an easily ignorable news ticker – one hidden next to the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame and underneath Kim Kardashian’s ample buttocks. Meanwhile, our government seems intent on enticing us to bury any notion of communal altruism. Our favourite word is ‘selfie’, for God’s sake. Just as in 1984, we’re in dire need of something with the popular clout of Band Aid to unapologetically drag out our innate shared benevolence. I welcome its return.

IB: Bit baffled: you say Geldof changed the west’s attitudes, then that we have become more insular. But the idea that he unleashed western altruism is astonishingly naive. Band Aid just permitted posturing politicians to cloak themselves in false compassion by chucking other people’s cash around the planet. You sweep aside evidence of consequent damage, whether by propping up despots or promoting Africa as a basket case in need of western salvation. It is not meant to be about making us feel good at home but the impact abroad.

Band Aid kickstarted an age of celebrity activism, with the idea that stars, slogans and stunts are sufficient to solve complex political problems. This is the spin-off from the celebrity culture you profess to despise. It leads to the conceit that a concert ends poverty or a Twitter hashtag brings back schoolgirls kidnapped by jihadists. You want an alternative: how about the super-rich start paying all their taxes instead of posing as saviours of Africa?

TI: No need to be baffled: 30 years ago, Band Aid awoke a momentary outpouring of heartfelt clemency across the UK – among a population conditioned to think selfishly. Since then, the internet’s handed our society the keys to form a meaningful community with the rest of the planet; instead, we’ve used it to gorge on BuzzFeed lists and Dapper Laughs Vines. Band Aid can and did make a huge difference. This isn’t ‘astonishing naivety’; look at the colossal amount British people have given as a direct result. It took a cheesy slice of aggressive pop to put such clemency top of our personal agendas. Band Aid doesn’t ‘make people feel good at home’. If anything, it leaves them feeling terrible; for three minutes, perhaps even without realising it, they acknowledge the horrendous distress being inflicted on desperate human beings. The natural, overwhelming reaction is to want to help.

IB: Again, you fail to engage with the evidence. The majority of Britons oppose aid policies in their name; this then backfires by assisting the rise of Ukip, an isolationist and pessimistic force. And let’s look at Ebola, an epidemic I have covered in Liberia that demonstrates again fatal failures of sluggish international institutions and most of the aid industry. This trite song will raise a comparative pittance, ignores Africans and has a logo implying the virus struck the entire continent. Patronising and perpetuating myths again. Nothing wrong with wanting to help – but plenty wrong when naive foreign interventions do more harm than good and hurt people they claim to help. Band Aid should have learned its lessons and stayed silent.

TI: Ian, not sure the laughable supposition that One Direction (who are among the acts featured on Band Aid) singing some words in a pop song will somehow boost Nigel Farage’s popularity counts as ‘evidence’. But it’s important to salute the real positive efforts you, personally, have dedicated to Africa as a campaigner and by co-founding Africa Express. I wholeheartedly applaud you. In contrast, I’m embarrassed that, on a typical day, I’m one of the very self-interested, unthinking, materially distracted masses I’ve spent this article attacking. Most Brits are – we blindly spin through our silly, inconsequential working weeks failing to make any meaningful global difference. We need blunt inspiration to give human tragedy abroad the deliberation it deserves. Band Aid provides it. It reminds me that I should show more decency, more often, towards people who need my help. I’ll request my Observer fee for this article be donated to the Oxfam Ebola Crisis Appeal. I hope it does some good.

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