By Ami Shah, visiting professor at Pacific Lutheran University
What drives our willingness to help? Altruism? The desire for good karma?
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.
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.