Leading article

Spare us a Bob?

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

Anyone listening to the BBC this week could be forgiven for thinking that the musician Bob Geldof had just emerged from Africa, like a latter-day Dr Livingstone, the first westerner with news of a deadly new virus. He and his makeshift band of celebrities have adopted Ebola, their song blazing from the radio while Geldof himself has been in every studio exhorting people, with his usual stream of expletives, to buy it.

Unless you have been in isolation for the past six months, the Band Aid single will not have raised your awareness of the disease one bit. Since the outbreak was first confirmed in Guinea on 22 March, many hours of news coverage had been broadcast and many millions raised to help the aid effort. Few have noted that diarrhoea has killed 73 times as many Africans as Ebola since the disease broke out. We can treat diarrhoea far more easily, though no celebrity in their right mind would sing a Christmas song about it.

The fear that Ebola might become a problem in the West seems to have focused minds here — and the Ebola response has been swift and considerable. The Disasters Emergency Committee, which has co-ordinated fund-raising for a number of medical charities, has raised £21 million in donations from British citizens. The Department for International Development, for once engaged in a worthwhile cause, has committed £230 million. A 90-bed field hospital has already opened in Freetown and more are being constructed. Fifty NHS volunteers will soon fly out to join charity workers who have been working in the field for months.

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.

The very title of Geldof’s song, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, suggests that Africans are as ignorant as they are poor and sick. Apart from in Arabic north, Christianity thrives in Africa rather more than it now does in much of Europe — so there is a somewhat high awareness of when Christmas falls (in January, for Ethiopians and Egyptians). In Britain, people will most certainly know it’s Christmas but we’re less likely than ever to mark the occasion by actually going to church. In Geldof’s 1985 Live Aid concert, David Bowie knelt and said the Lord’s Prayer in front of the crowd. It is unthinkable that any pop star would try to do this now and expect the audience to applaud — unless they were touring Africa.

The trouble with Geldof’s giveathons is that they engender a spirit whereby giving becomes more important than helping. Band Aid emerged at a similar time to those other celebrity fests: Comic Relief and Children in Need, both of which raised vast amounts, though few of the donors have much idea about how their money is spent. Often, it is not the causes that are the centre of attention but the celebrities, who earn virtue points and valuable minutes of free PR at the same time.

Thirty years ago, Geldof was a pioneer who raised a lot of money for a worthy cause. Since then, things have moved on — we now have a £12 billion foreign aid budget, for example, and even this is outdated in an era when economic growth helps Africa more than aid ever did. Africa deserves our respect and co-operation, not condescension and charity singles which reinforce damaging stereotypes. To adapt the rhetorical question posed by Geldof and his cronies: do they know it’s time to pack it in?

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