Bob Geldof, Band Aid and Do They Know Their Song May Be Harmful?

By:  Joan Baxter


resize-300x225Bob Geldof and Band Aid have done it again. They’ve re-recorded the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, first performed by UK and Irish musicians 30 years ago to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. The Band Aid 30 version has been tweaked to raise funds to fight Ebola.

Thankfully, the tweaking has excised the awful line that Bono sang back in 1984, “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”. Also gone is the ludicrous one bemoaning the lack of snow in Africa, which Sir Bob (he received a knighthood for his charitable work) and his co-writer Midge Ure curiously decided was a continent where “no rain nor rivers flow” and “nothing ever grows”. The inane question “Do they know it’s Christmas?” – asked about a continent full of very devout Christians who most certainly do, and many Muslims and non-Christians who may not care so much if it is, but also celebrate the holiday – has also been removed from the chorus.

But no matter how much tweaking they’ve done, there’s still an awful lot wrong with the Band Aid 30 song (just as there was with its previous versions). The new lyrics lump together hundreds of millions of people in more than a dozen West African countries into one basket of “doom” and “death” and “fear”, informing everyone in the region that they will have “no peace or joy this year”. Has no one told Geldof that Nigeria effectively controlled and eradicated Ebola? And that Ghana, like most countries in West Africa, has had no documented cases?

Drowning out the African voices combating Ebola

Nor has Geldof apparently noticed or acknowledged that a pantheon of African superstars has already done a powerful “Africa Stop Ebola” song. Not only is it a fabulous piece of music, but it contains invaluable advice – in several languages spoken in the region – on how to protect against Ebola. It is also raising funds for Doctors Without Borders, the international medical charity that has been on the frontline of the Ebola fight in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Mali's Salif Keita recording "Africa Stop Ebola" with a pantheon of Africa's musical icons

Mali’s Salif Keita recording “Africa Stop Ebola” with a pantheon of Africa’s musical icons

One has to wonder, as at least one African commentator has done, why the UN called on Sir Bob to tackle Ebola, as he says it did, instead of engaging governments to create multilateral international efforts that do not involve demeaning or patronizing messages about Africa. Why has the world not launched a “Global War on Ebola”, pooling public money and human resources on a scale befitting the scale of the tragedy and the suffering and the risk of the disease? And why didn’t the UN ask Sir Bob to throw his considerable celebrity weight behind promotion of African artists and their own musical efforts to prevent Ebola?

Then again, Geldof hasn’t built his reputation by recognizing or promoting African talent or indeed anything that’s good or great on the continent. In 2005, when he organized the Live 8 benefit concerts to pressure leaders of the G8 meeting in Scotland to do something about poverty in Africa, Geldof refused to include any African stars on the big stage with all the Western superstars. Instead he organized a smaller venue for African acts in Cornwall, earning himself a scathing attack from African music aficionado Andy Kershaw for “carving out his reputation by an opportunistic attachment to Africa’s suffering”.

And why didn’t the UN ask Sir Bob to throw his considerable celebrity weight behind promotion of African artists and their own musical efforts to prevent Ebola?

Others have noted that even if Geldof is good at raising money to support good works, the works done with the money haven’t always turned out to be very good at all. The famine for which first Band Aid single in 1984 raised about USD 12.5 million was widely misrepresented as a natural disaster, caused by drought. In fact, it was largely the result of a political crisis and conflict and there are reports that some of the funds raised for famine relief went to arms that actually helped prolong conflict in the area, and thus the famine and suffering.

Sport Aid – helping or just slighting Africa?

Two years after Band Aid and “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, I witnessed another of Geldof’s aid efforts, and how it slighted the very continent it was supposed to help. It was May 25, 1986 and I had just begun to report for the BBC from Burkina Faso. With the temperature hovering in the mid-forties, I watched in awe as thousands of Burkinabe of all shapes, sizes and ages braved the blazing heat and set off for a run through central Ouagadougou.

The occasion was “Sport Aid – Race Against Time”, a 10-kilometre road race organized in part by Geldof working with the United Nations to raise funds for famine relief in Africa. In Ouagadougou it started at 3 PM; the hottest time of the day at the hottest time of the year in Burkina Faso. The temperature that afternoon was in the mid-forties Celsius. But the event had not been scheduled for the convenience and comfort of runners in Burkina Faso, which – tellingly – was the only African country chosen to feature in the global run to raise money for Africa. It had been planned to start at the prime running time of 10 am in New York.

In the midst of the pack, running with his people without any special fanfare or sign that he was anything but an ordinary citizen, was the young, remarkable and revolutionary president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara.

The week before, I had gone to interview Sankara’s Minister of Sport, who was working with the United Nations mission in Burkina Faso to organize the race, which was to be televised around the world.

“Sport Aid,” he declared, “will let the whole world know about our revolution.” He was dripping with sweat, and also enthusiasm.   I’d never before encountered a government minister in any country that I would have described as “dripping with enthusiasm”.

“Before this,” he said, “no one knew anything about Burkina Faso [Land of People with Integrity]. They said we were a bunch of little communists. We’re not communists. We’re revolutionaries …we’re standing up and trying to solve our own problems, not begging others to do it for us.”

“But at 3 o’clock on Sunday,” he declared, his eyes bright with the dream he was conjuring for me in that hot office, “the whole world will know what we’re doing here. We will be twenty thousand people, running to show Africa that we are trying to help ourselves. We’ve also brought in drumming and dancing groups from throughout the country, and we’ve erected roadside stalls to exhibit the fine work of our artisans. Because of Sport Aid, everyone will know about Burkina Faso.”

“Is that what people in your country think we’re like?”

Two weeks later, Burkina television aired the Sport Aid broadcast that the rest of the world had seen live on May 25. This was the broadcast that was going to put Ouagadougou on the map, showcase its pride, accomplishments and its efforts to solve its own problems. We invited people from our neighbourhood to come and watch on our television.

First the coverage took us to New York, after that to Melbourne, Berlin, London, Toronto, Madrid, Paris. We were told that more than 20 million runners in 76 countries had taken to the streets to raise money for the starving of Africa, in the biggest sporting event ever organized. In our living room, everyone waited patiently to see Ouagadougou. Some in the room had run the race. Some had been in the drumming and dancing groups. They were all desperate to see themselves and the country of which they were so proud. The broadcast dragged on. Still nothing from Ouagadougou. Nothing from any African cities.

Then came a publicity spot for UNICEF. It featured doomsday music and scorched-earth landscapes with jagged cracks in parched earth. Out of nowhere, a woman appeared. She cut a forlorn figure of misery, a waif clad in black robes fluttering in the wind. The camera zoomed in on her face, a sorrowful face. She looked Ethiopian. She gazed into the camera with large, blank eyes. Then the camera flashed to a baby lying alone in a mud hut, watched by a huge vulture. The vulture cast its eye on the infant, who lay still on the mud floor. Suddenly the vulture swooped down and grabbed the baby in its talons, carrying it off into the desert sunset.

Someone shouted. “Hey, is that what people in your country think we’re like here?”

“Why did she leave her baby alone?” protested a woman. “We don’t leave our babies alone. We always carry them.”

Then, “Quiet, here comes Ouagadougou!”

The words “Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso” appeared in white at the bottom of the screen, which was filled with the hazy image of bobbing heads barely discernable through the dust and heat waves. Only the front line of runners was clear – the United Nations officials in white. The film clip from Ouagadougou lasted only a few seconds, before fading away. The announcer shouted exuberantly that we were heading now to the runners on night-time streets in a rainy Australian city.

“Is that all?” came a subdued voice from the audience gathered in front of the television.

There was then some loud bickering and discussion in the language of the Mossi people, Mooré, which I did not understand, before they all began to laugh as though they thought the joke – on them – had been a very good one.

The Sport Aid television broadcast reached 750 millions viewers around the world.

The Live Aid legacy

When all the running and fund-raising were done, people around the world were left with the impression that there was nothing – absolutely nothing – in Ethiopia but starving, wide-eyed women, skeletal babies and vultures ready waiting to steal them. In her book, Damned nations: greed, guns, armies and aid, Samantha Nutt recounts a bad joke that sums up the fallout from that one-dimensional image of Ethiopia and Africa promoted by Geldof & Company: “You’re going to an Ethiopian restaurant? What do they serve, an empty plate?”

Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, Sport Aid, Live Aid and Live 8 all sent out simplistic, paternalistic, sometimes just plain stupid and erroneous messages, misleading well-intentioned Westerners into believing that by buying a ticket or a piece of music they had done their bit, really helped to change the world, make it a better place.

No need to consider the long-lasting effects of the slave trade, the 19th century scramble for Africa and its carving up into colonies by European powers, foreign domination and exploitation even after independence, foreign political and military interference during the Cold War that led to proxy wars and to grotesque dictators being installed and propped up by both Eastern and Western blocs, the pillaging of Africa’s resources by foreign “investors”, structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that have caused such economic disparities and so harmed Africa’s health and education systems, and yes, led to the conditions that spawn famines and diseases such as Ebola.

Buying a charitable single at Christmas can spawn fuzzy, warm sentiments about Africa being a place that desperately needs Western benefactors to “save” it, even if the Westerners in question may have little knowledge of the continent and what ails it. Few know that far more wealth has been siphoned out of Africa than has ever been “given” to it. For every “aid” dollar that is handed across the table, ten dollars boomerang back to the West, largely under the table through tax havens, as documented by Nicholas Shaxson in his 2011 book, Treasure Islands: tax havens and the men who stole the world.

All of these inconvenient truths can be conveniently ignored when the charitable music starts playing, tugging at heartstrings and evoking pity that opens purse strings. In 2011, researchers published a report that put a label on the lasting negative effect of Geldof-style charities, dubbing it the “Live Aid legacy” that casts the donating public in the North as the “dominant giver” and people in the global South as the “grateful recipient”.

Hobnobbing with billionaires, dodging taxes?

There is also reason to question Geldof’s grasp of Africa’s problems and their potential solutions, which was cast into considerable doubt in 2008 when he flew to Sierra Leone with Frank Timis, a controversial mining tycoon. Timis, who runs massive iron ore mines in Sierra Leone, is a controversial figure, with two convictions for possession of heroin in Australia, a man the Toronto Stock Exchange declared in 2007 an ”unsuitable” person to act as director or major shareholder of any companies listed on the TSX. By joining the mining magnate in his private jet on a junket to Sierra Leone, Geldof afforded Timis, who in 2011 debuted on the Forbes List of billionaires as one of the world’s wealthiest men, the honour of his name as an anti-poverty campaigner.

Sir Bob’s much-touted aversion to poverty is not limited to Africa, but also seems to apply to his personal finances. He has amassed a healthy fortune that may seem a little unseemly for someone who urges the public to hand over their money for his charity records, and pressures governments to increase aid and reduce African debt. In 2006, when he appeared on the Sunday Times Rich List, his wealth was put at the equivalent of over USD 50 million. In 2012, he confirmed that with his non-domiciled status he can legally avoid income and capital gains tax on international earnings. But when he was asked just how much tax he actually paid, he “exploded”, saying he employed 500 people, gave of his time, and then shouted at the journalist not to lecture him about morals.

Sir Bob is not alone in thinking that his charitable endeavours should justify his right to dodge taxes. U2’s Bono, who also likes to pontificate about aid and debt relief in Africa, goes to great lengths to avoid paying taxes, and moved part of his band’s income offshore to The Netherlands to do just that.

Bono will again be part of Geldof’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, the 2014 edition.

I wonder if either Bono or Geldof ever got wind of the story that broke in 2011 about the group of South African musicians that had recorded a song of their own in response to “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. According to the news report, “Proceeds from the new single will go towards teaching discipline, literacy and contraception at British schools. After 28 years of silently tolerating it, a group of unemployed local musicians have joined forces to release a Christmas single, entitled ‘Yes we do,’ in response to the Bob Geldof inspired Band Aid song, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’”

The report continued. “When asked why the ensemble of African musicians, who have called themselves Plaster Cast, had taken so long to come up with a response to the Band Aid song Gundane said it had taken a while for them to realise that it wasn’t actually an elaborate joke. ‘We kept waiting for them to laugh,’ he said, ‘But the punch-line never arrived.’”

Alas, it turned out that the news story – unlike the Geldof’s Band Aid and their song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – was a spoof, biting satire from South Africa’s now defunct Hiyabo website.

I also wonder how much time Geldof, Bono and others involved in Band Aid and their charitable spectacles and songs, have spent with ordinary people in Africa, just listening and learning about the cultures and traditions of sharing, solidarity and giving that are so characteristic on the continent.

As Dali, a Kenyan friend of mine, said recently, “Every day is Christmas in Africa, we are always giving to each other. We don’t need Christmas for that.”


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