Selling charity: Of Band-Aids and bling

By Ami Shah, visiting professor at Pacific Lutheran University

What drives our willingness to help? Altruism? The desire for good karma?

Or bling?

That’s right. Bling.

Charity, compassion and altruism have become market commodities – things that can be bought and displayed, demonstrating our commitments to social justice and development. T-shirts, shoes, CDs, headphones, even vodka, all mark our involvement with the world around us.

The latest incarnation of compassion for sale was announced on Monday. Bob Geldof, the man behind the 1984 song Do they know it’s Christmas?, announced a 30th anniversary edition, complete with somewhat revised lyrics and an all-new all-star band including Chris Martin, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, and, of course, Bono. (There will also be German and French versions of the song, and the article notes that Quincy Jones will also produce a new version of USA for Africa (We Are the World).) Proceeds from the single, which should be available by the early next week, will go to fund the response against Ebola in West Africa.

I was just a child when Do they know it’s Christmas?, and, a year later, We are the World were released. I, too, have sung along to the catchy lyrics, laughed years later at the 1980s rock-star hairstyles, and maybe, somewhere in a box in the corner of my closet, I still have a version of the original single lying around. Years later, I found myself staring at a sale-priced Product(RED) T-shirt, and learning that the proceeds would help fund anti-AIDS efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa. I bought it. I bought some bling, and did some good.

Or something.

Of course, supporting the Ebola response in West Africa is a worthwhile cause – the motivations of these efforts are not what spur my questions about compassion, charity and global engagement. I have no quibbles with Geldof’s motivations. Rather, I think we all should question the modes through which these motivations are put into action.

First of all, we know better. Studies have shown that the original Band Aid song and marketing strategies, rife with stereotypes about Africa, have long-lasting resonance among the general public. These simplistic misunderstandings of a diverse continent hamper efforts toward more just partnerships in development and aid efforts. The original funds from Band Aid and the corresponding multicontinent concert were supposed to go toward famine alleviation in Ethiopia. However, Band Aid’s efforts assisted in prolonging the civil war by at least a year.

As Edward Carr, Bruce Hall and myself have argued elsewhere, celebrity-led interventions in development and aid have, for centuries reinforced and reproduced unequal structures of global power and global economic interactions. In presenting a simplified story, simple solutions are offered, which enables and privileges one-sided humanitarian engagements. Band Aid, even at 30, continues to do the same, despite the existence of Africa-based responses that could be supported or partnered with.

Second, there are better ways to engage than through “Shopping Well to Save the World.” We could, as individuals, support African-based responses, as noted above. We could use the power of public opinion (especially in an election year) to solicit government commitments of all sorts of resources to the World Health Organization and similar agencies. We could support continued funding of scientific research and development and humanitarian efforts. And of course, we could donate to those on the frontlines, like the doctors and nurses working with Doctors Without Borders – or perhaps even more important, to the numerous, uncounted, and often underappreciated, health-care workers across West Africa who are confronting the realities of the Ebola virus daily.
Giving money away can be a difficult thing. A consumption-based economy creates the expectation of receiving something in return, and a variety of organizations have taken note. Donations to World Wildlife Fund may be thanked with a calendar of adorable baby animals. Donating to NPR might result in acquiring a mug or reusable tote bag. We receive something for something.
In recent years, this model has transformed in some arenas to full-on consumption for charity. One no longer needs to donate, and in turn for your gift, receive a special thank you pen, calendar or tote bag. Now, we can simply buy our charity, consuming the feeling of doing good, displaying our altruism through a pair of TOMS on our feet or an especially special red iPod. Bling.
To display our own commitments to the efforts against Ebola, we will soon be able to buy a charity single, displaying it visually on our shelves or audibly on our playlists. There’s even a corresponding T-shirt, so we can wear the symbols of our compassion.
The commodification of consumption potentially limits greater engagement by becoming our first point of contact, and of charity, with major humanitarian crises. Money spent on consumer goods could be put to more effective use by the organizations and governments involved directly in the response, an argument supporting both altruistic and efficiency-driven motivations for involvement.
But instead, we can now buy our sense of doing good, our feeling of engaging with the world around us, and our altruism. We can demonstrate to others our status as do-gooders through the goods in our homes and playlists, or on our bodies. Doing good can be bought, and we can have the bling to show for it.
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