The nights are drawing in, an African disaster is in the news, and Bob Geldof is swearing on live television. It can only mean one thing: Band Aid is back. Now resembling a national institution, the artistically dreadful charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas? has been resurrected for the fourth time in thirty years. Now featuring such humanitarian heavyweights as One Direction and Olly Murs, Band Aid 30 raises funds to help tackle the ongoing Ebola virus disease epidemic in West Africa.
Band Aid has attracted a significant amount of criticism since its revival, which has focused largely upon the song’s patronising and even dehumanising portrayal of African people as desperate, voiceless, and dependent upon the generosity of privileged white Westerns. Many of these critiques are as old as Band Aid itself. However, Band Aid 30 has still proven popular with the music-buying public. At the time of writing, Band Aid has raced to become the fastest-selling single in years, shifting 312,000 copies in one week and entering the charts at #1.
Despite a belief among fundraising professionals that pop music benefit songs are in decline (displaced by social media activism such as the ALS ice bucket challenge), there is clearly still a popular demand for Geldof’s product. But what does the revival and continuing success of Band Aid actually tell us about Modern Britain?
The original Band Aid was organised by Geldof and Midge Ure in response to a severe famine in Northern Ethiopia, famously exposed by BBC television news in late 1984. The coming together of celebrity musicians in support of famine relief resonated with the public and proved immensely popular, drawing in new constitutiences traditionally uninterested in humanitarian causes (especially young people).
Band Aid (and its follow-up Live Aid in 1985) also attracted sharp criticism at the time from established development organisations such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, for an over-reliance on images of starving African children as a means to shock the viewing public into donations. In doing so, it was felt that Band Aid was simplifying the famine and failing to raise any awareness of the more complex, structural causes of African poverty (such as debt, global economics, geopolitics and climate change).
While legitimate, this critique obscured how the same mainstream aid agencies had promoted and reinforced a similar message in their own publicity and appeals for many decades beforehand. Simplistic, negative images of disaster and suffering children may be unethical and exploitative, but they have also been consistently effective at raising money and driving growth in a crowded voluntary sector. Indeed, for all the attacks directed at Band Aid and its sequels, they have actually been following a formula for successful humanitarian fundraising already embedded in British society. The record sales of Band Aid 30 re-affirm the appeal of this form of charity.
Band Aid’s popularity therefore shows us that poverty and suffering abroad has consistently moved the British public, but largely only in a charitable sense. Popular support for overseas aid has historically been motivated by moral and humanitarian concerns, while understanding of the causes and complexities of global poverty and underdevelopment has been low. As a number of recent public opinion surveys conclude, simplistic associations of Africa and the developing world with famine, disaster and Western aid are enduring and compelling stereotypes in Britain.
This can be attributed to years of simplistic messages and negative images in humanitarian publicity, a genre which Band Aid exemplifies. It also reveals how a number of colonial ideas and discourses about the wider world remain deeply engrained in British society and culture. We know that Britain’s imperial identity was sustained by ideas of benevolent leadership, which presented the Empire as a positive and constructive force in the world. Modern humanitarian philanthropy such as Band Aid re-packages these discourses, offering a new narrative of British national purpose and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ in a post-imperial age characterised by fragmentation and a lack of coherent national identity.
Band Aid also reveals something more specific about the nature of charity in contemporary Britain. There is a long lineage of simplistic, non-political humanitarian fundraising which stretches back to missionary portrayals of colonial subjects. Since the 1980s, this has been reinforced by broader shifts in how capitalist society functions. The turn from collectivist welfare to neoliberal governance, sparked by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, has also increasingly legitimised the realm of consumption as a means to intervene in global issues. The result has been market-driven philanthropy such as Band Aid – slick, professional, corporate, and populist. This philanthropy also bypasses structural solutions, substitutes for state responsibility, and narrows the possibilities of public action to the act of donating money.
Band Aid and similar initiatives enable citizens to affect positive change, but without altering their own consumer behaviour, or questioning the complicity of consumer capitalism in creating global injustice. Band Aid 30’s success is thus also a reminder of some uncomfortable truths. Perhaps the British public simply do not want revolutionary transformations in the existing international order, which could prevent emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic from occurring in the first place. As a society, we want Band Aid solutions – sticking plasters that stem the bleeding, but do not address the underlying condition. The vocal public criticism of Band Aid 30 may indicate that these attitudes are shifting. But a quick glance at this week’s Top 40 UK Singles Chart suggests there is still a long way to go.