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Africa: Past Time for Bandaids

AfricaFocus Bulletin
November 19, 2014 (141119)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Although the new BandAid30 single may raise millions, some of which may actually aid in fighting Ebola, it is also prompting an unusually high level of criticism for its patronizing lyrics and paternalistic stance towards Africa. Even more important, the Ebola epidemic is prompting not only traditional charity but also questioning of the fundamental global failure to invest in sustainable support for health at all levels.

Such critiques also met the original "Do They Know It's Christmas" fundraiser 30 years ago for famine in Ethiopia. And the critical view of paternalistic aid appeals is commonplace in Africa and among all those with close links to the African continent. The fundamental stereotypes and attitudes being criticized are still pervasive, of course. But the opposing views now seem to be echoed much more widely. With YouTube and FaceBook now in wide use in Africa as well as worldwide, moreover, there can be no excuse for failure to highlight African voices that are far more eloquent than those of Western pop stars.

To give only two examples, check out, if you haven't already, these songs, the first by Liberian musicians, the second by Francophone West African musicians:

The Hope Song
Liberian Artists Together for Advancement (LATA)

Africa Stop Ebola
Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and others.

This AfricaFocus includes several short commentaries on the new Bandaid fundraiser, one from the ironically named blog "Africa is a Country," and two from the Guardian (UK). I've also prefaced this with a mini-commentary of my own, focused on the fundamental point of the need for investment in health and its relationship to other central issues, such as capital flight versus investment in development and global public goods.

Also of note, among many you can find online:

The Rusty Radiator Award Competition
Satirical website on aid "saviors"

Interview with Geldof cut short after question about tax evasion, Independent, November 18, 2014

Emma Silvers, SF Weekly, November 17, 2014
"Do They Know It's Christmas" Is Still a Misguided, Patronizing, Terrible Song

"Saving Africa, yet again, with a song"
Al Jazeera, November 18, 2014

For talking points and previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on health issues, visit For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on aid-related issues, visit


Ebola Perspectives

[AfricaFocus is regularly monitoring and posting links on Ebola on social media. For additional links, see]

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Past Time for Bandaids

William Minter, AfricaFocus Bulletin

November 19, 2014

Although the new BandAid single may raise millions, some of which may actually aid in fighting Ebola, it is also evoking an extraordinarily high level of criticism for its patronizing lyrics and paternalistic stance towards Africa. Even more important, the Ebola epidemic is prompting not only traditional charity but also questioning of the fundamental global failure to invest in sustainable support for health at all levels.

The stereotypes and attitudes being criticized are still pervasive, of course. But many of the critical points now seem to be echoed much more widely. These include, for example, a widespread recognition that the epidemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in health systems not only in the most-affected African countries, but also at the global level and within rich countries such as the United States.

Those weaknesses are the direct result of budget decisions which have reduced rather than increased health expenditures, despite overwhelming evidence that such expenditures are also beneficial to the economy. The policies may have been labeled "structural adjustment," austerity, or fiscal restraint, as well as being the result of disproportionate power of those pushing other priorities for government spending. The context of these policies, in turn, is the capacity of the rich to evade taxes by minimizing tax rates and by capital flight into tax havens around the world.

Faced with Ebola, fundraising is indeed needed, and should be held to standards of accountability and respect for those for whom the funds are being raised. But the world's response to Ebola will be most meaningful if it leads to reexamination of short-sighted policies which prioritize profits for a few at the cost of long-term benefits for society as a whole.

For a recent AfricaFocus Bulletin focused on health financing in particular, see

For a set of talking points stressing interconnections of such issues as health and tax evasion, which are both global and Africa-wide, visit

For a campaign by ActionAid specifically linking tax issues to Ebola, visit

Bob Geldof doesn't need to do a #BandAid30 for Ebola. African musicians made a song already

Africa Is A Country | November 12, 2014 / direct URL:

Bob Geldof is going to put out another Band Aid single, another rehash of the grotesque "Do They Know it's Christmas?" with slightly altered lyrics. We've written about the problematic politics of such songs in detail before. Bim Adewunmi broke it down over at the Guardian today [see below].

Disaster appeals are necessary but it also matters what picture they give of crises and their structural causes. People need to understand the long-term factors which have made the Ebola crisis possible. This crisis is part of a long colonial disengagement, and a consequence of the years of structural adjustment tearing up local healthcare infrastructure. Geldof, Bono et al are deeply complicit in glossing neoliberal policies towards the continent with a humanitarian/anti-poverty sheen of respectability. These policies will continue to fail ordinary people and actively prevent governments putting in place the quality public services people require. (Nick Dearden makes a similar point [see below])

Geldof is the one who always gets the international platform on crises in Africa (he says he's responding to a request from the UN this time), but he never talks about these things. In his launch, he spoke about how "tragic" it was that "modernity" has arrived in Africa at last and it has brought Ebola with it. It's the kind of nonsense you end up coming out with when you mean well but don't really know what you're talking about.

Gary Younge got to the crux of the issue weeks ago:

It is an issue of public health to which no individual or privatised response can make any substantial, meaningful contribution. To fight an epidemic like Ebola you need a well-resourced public sector, well-trained government employees, central planning and coordination and a respect for science [...] what really terrifies the right about Ebola is that it shows -- albeit in a deadly, scary, tragic way -- that we are all connected. It shows that no matter how strong the gates around your community, how high the wall on your border, how sophisticated the alarm on your house; no matter how much you avoid state schools, public transport and public libraries; no matter how much you pay the premium to retreat from the public sphere -- you cannot escape both your own humanity and the humanity of others, and the fact that our fates are tied. If you want to feel secure in Texas, regardless of your race, income or religion, it's in your interests that people have healthcare in Monrovia.

The desire to swoop in and be a saviour is an archetypal desire. We understand the need, especially if one's own life is full of tragedy that one does not want to resolve or face. However, that leads to one taking actions that actually do not help. Geldof may raise money, but who knows if it will be actually "useful" or used in ways that are necessary? Besides that, such aid efforts only erase the effectiveness of local efforts, making it appear as though "western" actions are what saved poor diseased hungry Africa once again.

Sisonke Msimang has written on the ways in which the Ebola crisis in Liberia has highlighted the failures of the Aid industry to make good on its purported function:

"The Liberian Ebola situation can be summed up thusly: a virus that is deadly but can be effectively contained with good planning and logistics has managed to escape from a country that has one of the largest concentrations of 'helpers' in the world."

Perhaps the most telling fact is that there's already a song for Ebola by high profile Francophone West African musicians. Why doesn't Geldof simply promote that song? Or even acknowledge it at all? "Africa Stop Ebola" features a number of major international stars: Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Kandia Kora, Mory Kante, Sia Tolno, Barbara Kanam and rappers Didier Awadi, Marcus and Mokobé. You can share the video and like their Facebook page.

Here's the DEC Ebola appeal
( and MSF (

Band Aid 30: clumsy, patronising and wrong in so many ways

Bim Adewunmi

11 November 2014 / direct URL:

The city of Jos in Nigeria has a bit of a reputation: it has one of the coolest climates in the country. When I was growing up, I was told it was one of the few places where we could grow apples, and I even once read a newspaper report that it snowed there. It was an anomaly, sure, but I bring this up because it is a story that does not often get told.

That newspaper report came back to me this week when Sir Bob Geldof announced that he is reviving Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? to raise money for countries afflicted with the Ebola virus. The song's a classic, and not just because the video features a big-haired George Michael emoting into a microphone. But there were a few parts of the song that always stuck in my craw. For example, the lyric that begins: "And there won't be snow in Africa ..."

"It does snow in Africa!" I say under my breath every December when shopping malls roll the track out. There is a humourless danger in taking song lyrics too literally, but I can't help it: yes, they do know it's Christmas time in Africa because huge swaths of that vast continent are Christian; the greatest gift anyone can have is life; and actually, it is more likely to be water, not just "bitter tears", flowing across Africa's 54 nations.

Ebola is a menace and the three west African countries (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia) where the disease is wreaking havoc need financial help -- the type that multiple sales of a 4 pound charity CD can bring. "It has nothing to do with whether you like the record or not or whether you approve of the artists," Geldof told BBC News, which is a novel way of selling a charity record. "It's simply a way of saying, this Christmas, yeah, let's stop this here." At the launch event, he said: "[Band Aid 30] is focused on a small part of Africa that potentially holds a vast danger to the world." Everything Geldof is saying is completely true: the spread of Ebola is terrifying, it must be stopped as quickly as humanly possible, and we need to raise funds to combat it. So why does Band Aid 30 feel so patronising and uncomfortable?

There exists a paternalistic way of thinking about Africa, likely exacerbated by the original (and the second, and the third) Band Aid singles, in which it must be "saved", and usually from itself. We say "Africa" in a way that we would never say "Europe", or "Asia". It's easy to forget, for example, that the virus made its way to Nigeria -- Africa's most populous country and, for many, a potential Ebola tinderbox -- and was stamped out only by the efforts of a brave team of local healthcare workers. The popular narrative always places those of us in the west in the position of benevolent elders, helping out poor Africans, mouths always needy and yawning, on their constantly blighted continent, and leaves out harder to pin down villains: local corruption, yes, but also global economic policies that do little to pull some countries out of the depths of entrenched poverty.

It is interesting that Geldof says he received a call from the UN to say that Ebola was "getting out of control". Why does the red emergency telephone go for charity, over joined-up inter-govermental action? Thirty years after the original, and lineups that include the great and the good as well as a turning carousel of opportunists, how is it still incumbent on pop stars to rise up to sing a song that manages to also gently dehumanise the people it is helping? Even the logo -- an outline of Africa (no Madagascar) with BAND AID written across it, along with a hashtag "#E30LA" -- feels cheap and insulting.

Pop music, however well-intentioned (and no song was ever more well-intentioned than this one), can be so incredibly clumsy. I save my greatest ire for one line in particular, the egregious lyric that haunts me every Christmas, delivered on two separate versions by the same man, U2's Bono: "Well, tonight thank God it's them instead of you". Bono says he hated singing it, and had to be persuaded to do so (twice); imagine how I feel.

To Geldof's credit, he has said some of the lyrics will be tweaked slightly for this new version. Gone are the references to Africa's "burning sun" as well as the assertion that it is a place where "no rain nor rivers flow". Less easy to excise is the lingering view of Africa that has been cultivated over the last several decades.

Ebola crisis: three things Band Aid should really be singing about

Instead of more tired stereotypes of poor Africans, celebrities could highlight the geo-political problems that allowed the disease to spread

Nick Dearden

11 November 2014 / direct URL:

This weekend celebrity musicians will come together to record a new version of 1980s hit Do They Know It's Christmas. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure have galvanised a new generation of artists, including One Direction and Elbow, to raise money for the Ebola crisis. The question is whether this song will actually encourage an understanding of what's happening in west Africa and build towards the political solutions needed, or whether it will simply reinforce tired and unhelpful stereotypes.

Thirty years ago, celebrities under the name Band Aid released Do They Know It's Christmas in response to the Ethiopian famine of 1984. A generation on, and many people still associate Africa with starvation and poverty. The song's absurd portrayal of the continent ("Where nothing ever grows, No rain nor rivers flow") lingers on; an Africa of helpless, starving children in desperate need of Europe's generosity. In a report published in 2011 called Finding Frames, researchers found that this framing of Africa -- what they describe as the Live Aid legacy -- remains incredibly strong today. Swept away is the political context of Africa -- the decades of empire and slavery through to structural adjustment and debt crisis.

Band Aid's simple message erased all political complexity from the Ethiopian famine -- not a natural disaster pure and simple, but a catastrophe used and exacerbated by a brutal government to destroy rebel fighters challenging its authority. Today, Ebola also exists in a political context, and while agencies dealing with the crisis do need funds, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea also need political solutions to challenge the exploitation that bred Ebola.

Ebola has broken out in a region that has been torn apart by conflicts in recent decades -- this much is true. But the countries are not naturally poor. Neither can their suffering be laid solely at the door of corruption. They are also victims of economic policies pursued by western countries and corporations.

As the People's Health Movement said recently, the reason for the Ebola epidemic "lies not in the pathology of the disease but in the pathology of our society and the global political and economic architecture." A few million dollars will not substitute for the wealth they lose each year.

If celebrities want to help west Africa, there are three things Band Aid might want to say in their new lyrics about the Ebola crisis.

First, Sierra Leone and Liberia are booming. They are enjoying very high growth figures -- supposedly the symbol of a country's "development". In fact Liberia has the highest ratio of foreign direct investment to GDP in the world and has been growing at above 10% for years. Sierra Leone is now growing at above 20%. [both estimates preEbola]

The free-market dogma of our government would suggest that everything is in place to make the poor richer. But through the takeover of land, exploitation of minerals and privatisation of resources, west Africa's wealth is leaving in shiploads, just as it always has done.

In Sierra Leone, growth figures largely represent mining activity, and mining corporations have been granted such enormous tax incentives that the government is effectively being fleeced of their wealth. Christian Aid reports that this lost revenue came to nearly 14% of GDP in 2011, when the government spent more on tax incentives than on its development priorities. They predict the country will lose more than $240m annually from tax incentives in coming years, with the vast bulk made up from tax incentives granted to a couple of British mining companies.

So first up, let west Africa keeps its wealth.

Second, healthcare in west Africa is in a desperate state and left largely to the private sector. Sierra Leone has the worst life expectancy in the world (just 45 years) and in 2010 had just 136 doctors (in World Bank "per 1,000 of the population" terms, that's 0). Liberia had even fewer.

This is at least in part because west Africa, like so many regions, has been beaten down by IMF policies over many years. While the IMF has allowed a "break" from their normal policies while Ebola rages, this is hardly a long-term strategy for building up the public sector.

Neither is the mania for private sector healthcare and education that our own government's development strategy embraces. Though UK development funds have been made available to support health systems, with some positive results, the UK recently cut its aid to both countries as it promotes greater private healthcare across Africa.

Ebola shouldn't have become a major epidemic. We need to support the creation of decent public health systems, or at least stop promoting private sector competition.

The final element of west Africa's crisis is the intellectual property regime embedded in free trade agreements, which supposedly act to encourage research and development. Ebola proves that the system does no such thing -- at least not when it comes to life-threatening diseases affecting those without money. Ebola has been ignored by big pharma, though public money is now beginning to oil the wheels of research.

Essentially, Ebola is an unprofitable disease. This won't change until the stranglehold of big pharma over global medicines is broken, and we begin to fund and control medical research publicly.

If celebrities want to deepen understanding of Africa's problems, they can play a useful role. Even Band Aids can be useful in the short-term. But perpetuating the idea that a continent of helpless people need yet more money from Europe will do far more harm than good.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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