The White Band’s Burden: Band Aid 30 and Modern Britain

Andrew Jones

Andrew Jones

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.

Disasters Emergency Committee, East African Emergency Appeal, 1980. Reproduced with permission of the Disasters Emergency Committee

Disasters Emergency Committee, East African Emergency Appeal, 1980. Reproduced with permission of the Disasters Emergency Committee

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.

Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, 1985. By Squelle (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, 1985. By Squelle (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

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.

60 thoughts on “The White Band’s Burden: Band Aid 30 and Modern Britain

  1. The cynical view that assumes the British public are content with the status quo of world politics, struggling economies, etc., needs further discussion and debate. It’s damning and unfair. I can’t imagine for a second that the members of the public who sat and innocently and willingly clicked and purchased the song, thinking, quite justifiably, that in some small way, they were able to support a charitable cause, did so with a notion of supremacy or more alarmingly, of the mindset that a nation crippled by disease is acceptable. You raised many thought provoking points in line with much that I’ve read on the same issue but at times, over complicate and devalue what many, many members of the public would have thought was the right thing to do.

  2. To label the British Public to be content to sticking plasters and stemming the bleeding on the real causes of world poverty. Is frankly a poor evaluation of today’s British Society Andrew Jones. Despite your critical view of us, we are well aware of the global complexities of poverty and under development. As these facts are taught during school geography lessons from the age of 10 onwards. Whether a child of that age understands the magnitude of the problems faced by under developed countries is another question entirely. I find it quite a narrow minded view to see this issue as a “white man’s burden” from a post imperial age. What of all those non-white nations who also contribute to charitable causes around the globe? Why are their charitable contributions not valued just as much as a “white nations” in your opinion? When it comes to funding charitable causes there is no black or white, it should be seen as a collective contribution. Which comes with no label other than humans helping humanity rise again from the deepest depths of despair. What we do ask is that the governments of these under developed counties, don’t misuse our funds to buy arms. And keep the money to enrich the lives of greedy corrupt politicians.

  3. Band Aid is a peculiarly appropriate name then, isn’t it? A plaster you apply to a bleeding wound. Can I be the first to offer to pay money so that pop artists will not make any more Christmas songs like this? I’m a horrible old cynic, I know, but I can’t stand the idea that this level of bad taste would be responsible for anything good in the world. It amounts to a tax on sentimentality. It seems to me that sending a bunch of clowns and entertainers to prance around in front of the victims of the world just encourages the nation states- the real abusers in this abusive relationship- to cut a corresponding chunk from their Aid budgets.

  4. > 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.

    I disagree. For a start it’s unfair to criticise the general public’s sympathetic – albeit naive and misguided – reaction to ‘do something’ when faced with images of people starving to death. Also the British public were fooled into thinking they were making a real, positive and (it was hoped) long lasting difference. The public were guilty of being naive, but it was Geldof and co who misinformed the public and it was the vile mainstream media who failed to investigate the truth and help the pubic wise up to the scam that was/ is Live Aid.

    As THISdocumentary points out, in the original campaign the money was used to facilitate policies of ethnic cleansing.
    In the Live8 campaign the events were used to distract from the ‘make poverty history campaign’, to boost the sales (and egos) of the artists performing and to make slimy politicians appear more hip and charitable. The whole campaign actually helped to turn a serious political/ humanitarian issue onto a ‘touchy feely’ celebration of celebrity narcissism.

    Nobody in the media has ever questioned Geldolf and Live Aid or brought any of the FACTS to the public attention. Instead they collude in the scam because it serves their selfish agendas too. It’s up to good old internet to shine a much needed light onto this shady enterprise (see previous link)

  5. Loved live aid 1985! Loved loved loved Queen U2 and Elton. Fantastic perfomrnaces. Cant say the same across the river about Phil Collin and Led Zep, Or Micks performance!

  6. This idea of Africa as one big mass of poverty and starvation is a real problem. Moreover, the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” always pissed me off, because the answer is clearly either “Yes”, because the Africans in question are Christians, or “Probably, but they don’t care” because they’re not. Sure, I know it’s not meant to be literal, but the point is the same: this idea that all Africans are constantly miserable and starving. Famine is a real problem in parts of the continent, but not in all of it, and not consistently, and the problem of famine itself is largely caused by internal politics, so this sort of band-aid solution doesn’t really work in the long term. African countries in the long term need to be able to get on their own feet, not to be charity cases for westerners.

  7. Thanks for your blog entry,

    I have a problem with your assumption that Band Aid is ‘actually’ a popular thing that people are simply consuming and not problematizing, as Nickstar01 has written.
    As the TOP 40 singes chart shows, BAND AID is actually on the 40th position of the week – which isn’t all that good, really, considering its potential and all that money that has been put into it – just consider all the brainwashing they’ve been pumping on all media outputs from TV, Radio, ADs…

    To add one more thing, and to go further in showing how this marketing project is highly problematic because of its simplification, generalizations and highly patronizing stereotyping (there is little doubt about this); the youtube video on AFRICA FOR NORWAY, a caricature made by Africans helping freezing Norwegian families, has received almost 3 million views. This comes to show that the BAND AID isn’t simply accepted and consumed by either European, African, and other audiences. It is questioned, problematized, made fun of, caricatured, and by many even rejected


  8. I think it was Charles Dickens who coined the term ‘telescopic philanthropy’. Brits send a lot of money abroad because it seems like a quick fix. Helping locals is ongoing. Local poor are always there.

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