Let’s give Bob Geldof a break

Bob Geldof arrives for the recording of the Band Aid 30 single at Sarm Studios in London.

A lot has changed in the 30 years since the first Band Aid single was recorded, and not just the faces of the pop stars singing, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’.

As the Spectator observed in its editorial this week, during the Live Aid concert in 1985 David Bowie stopped to say the Lord’s Prayer, something that would go down like a lead balloon with a British audience today. But we’ve also become more cynical since then – about the charity industry, about entertainers do-gooding, and about the economics of lifting countries out of poverty.

Partly this is a good thing, a realisation that aid often does not work and in many cases has made things worse. The Spectator editorial from this week argues:

And now Bob Geldof walks into this international effort as a nostalgia act from the 1980s. He seems unaware of all the parodies of his charity singles. One spoof, ‘Africa for Norway’, is a video showing Africans recording a charity song to raise funds for radiators to keep Scandinavians warm in winter. ‘In Norway, kids are freezing,’ runs the first line. ‘It’s time for us to care.’ The video asks us to consider what Africans would think of Europe if the only images they saw were of the freezing and the dying. (This winter, incidentally, at least 20,000 British pensioners are likely to die of the cold — an annual event. Where is the charity single for them?)

As one Liberian student put it this week, Geldof is suffering from a ‘white saviour complex’. Listen only to Band Aid and you might want to give to Africa but never invest there. You would not guess that any African country could have an economy, still less that they have hospitals, doctors and administrators who are making the biggest contribution to fighting Ebola. It ought also to be noted that Africa is making extraordinary progress in the way it fights diseases. Western aid has played a role in this, but so has the more potent force of Chinese investment — and, most of all, the efforts and resourcefulness of Africans themselves.

I suppose I am motivated by nostalgia, but I have a big soft spot for Sir Bob. Band Aid’s 1985 rerelease was the first single I bought; I was seven, and fired up with enthusiasm that we in the rich countries could, simply by handing over money, end the sight of starving children in Africa. Well, I soon had that notion knocked out of me.

Geldof also seems to have angered some Africans. Ghanian-raised singer Fuse ODG pulled out of Band Aid song, writing in the Guardian:

I am not disputing Band Aid’s good intentions. But the shock-factor strategy they have used since the 1980s has sparked a whole wave of ‘good cause’ organisations that have been irresponsible with regard to the images shown to the rest of the world. It’s been totally one-sided. That’s understandable in part, as they wouldn’t raise much money if they showed the affluence, wealth, and happy lifestyles that exist in the continent. But in the process of doing all this “good work” a huge imbalance has been created.

That image of poverty and famine is extremely powerful psychologically. With decades of such imagery being pumped out, the average westerner is likely to donate £2 a month or buy a charity single that gives them a nice warm fuzzy feeling; but they are much less likely to want to go on holiday to, or invest in, Africa. If you are reading this and haven’t been to Africa, ask yourself why.

One African website has published two pieces criticising the song, one arguing, “Most Africans are black and can sing songs themselves. There is already an Ebola song produced in Africa by Africans which is a million times better than your song you probably didn’t know that because you don’t really know anything about Africa do you?”

I’m not sure this is entirely fair. Band Aid is not stereotyping Africa as a land of poverty and disease, it is a land with lots of poverty and disease, and we still have a moral duty to try to help, even if it risks offending people. By some indices Africa has made progress; Zambia and Ghana have officially gone form being third to second world, and the African criticism reflects the fact that communications technology has taken off across the continent.

But Africa also started from a very low base this century and still has enormous problems. According to the UN some 239m Africans were going hungry as of the 2010-2012 period, up from 170m or so at the time when I bought that single. Despite the progress in the first few years of the millennium, hunger rose after 2007. Every day die 3,000 Africans from Aids, and this year 2,000 migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans have drowned trying to reach Europe (including Norway, where children generally aren’t cold because they have loads of money).

If Bob Geldof does have a white saviour complex, it’s much to his credit in my view. It also shows the influence of the Holy Ghost Fathers who ran his school, Blackrock College in Dublin. The fathers were missionaries in Africa, a relentlessly difficult and dangerous job that Irishmen and women carried out with great courage, and even in our more secular age their influence remains. Politician Ruairi Quinn mentioned the influence of the missionary Fathers on the school ethos, stating: “The poverty of distant Africa was brought into our classrooms by our returned missionary teachers.”

Sir Bob has been critical of the school and the Church generally in Ireland, but I’d be surprised if that missionary influence wasn’t felt in his own compassionate quest to help Africa.


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