Heal the World, but not with a Band Aid
I’m pretty confident Band Aid 2014 would raise a lot more money if they just threatened to do the record unless we all donate. Many would give heartily to put an end to the spectacle of a room full of millionaires emoting out a dark, vapid and condescending nursery rhyme. In a perfect world an epidemiologist on the news would be enough to fire us into action, but millions of us it seems need our empathy activated by a room full of deified karaoke singers. We need to be purchasing a patronising, stereotype enforcing means of audio torture in order to help, in a short term way, those more unfortunate than ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the money raised will do some good and Ebola is a horrible disease that we need to get to grips with. However, the main killer in Africa is poverty. And the countries who have struggled to contain the Ebola epidemic like Liberia and Sierra Leone are among the poorest in the world. It is a harsh truth that one of the reasons they are poor is that WE make it harder for them to develop. For instance, subsidising farmers in the EU may make our food cheaper but it has a devastating affect on African production. Forced liberalisation of African markets leads to the wealth of Africa flowing out into the hands of western countries. In short, African poverty makes us richer, and the artists singing this song are well within the one percent of the most affluent. They are all lucky enough to come from countries where it is possible for people with mediocre talent to become humongously rich and worshipped by the masses. There is something obscene about people who have become so wealthy signing a trite song about the poverty stricken. Do none of them think that inequality may be one of the problems here?
The truth is that Africa is a rich continent inhabited by poor people. A continent full of countries that have historically been held back by exploitation, both by the developed world and by its own corrupt leaders. On the whole, African countries have been making steady progress over the last decade. The problems facing the continent will be solved by the people who live there. What we can do is make it easier for progress to occur by enacting policies that foster democracy, the building of strong institutions and the promotion of good governance.
There is such thing as a Halo Effect, where we elevate the overall ability or opinion of a person based on their perceived skill or success in a specific field. So we will listen to and follow the opinions of a celebrity above an Ebola expert any day of the week. Even if that celebrity shirks from any mildly taxing moral questions using petulance, indignation and expletives.
Would this Ebola crisis even be an issue if, after the first Band Aid, Midge and Bob had gone in another direction. Had they formed a political party that supported policies that made things easier for the countries affected. A party supported by the Halo Effect of celebrity, guided by the following principles:
- The reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy which makes food prices artificially low and therefore makes it difficult for farmers in developing countries to compete
- The UK should never sell arms to or prop up regimes that are brutal and/or undemocratic
- That aid should be targeted to improving institutions in developing countries. Good aid needs to be targeted at the poorest people. It needs to be used for providing public services, schools, hospitals, police forces, democratic institutions and promoting rights for women in developing countries
- An investment in African Leadership. The African Leadership Academy does good work here
- Aid should not be tied. Especially not to any IMF style opening up of markets. Which leads to the robbing of wealth by companies from more developed countries. Developing markets need to be protected
- To work with other countries to form a consensus on a way forward which involves the international community taking a less exploitative approach?
If such a party was formed 30 years ago and had such luminaries backing it, I would say that it could have grown to be a political force. The people living in developing African states would have taken care of the rest. It may not have been as glamorous as popping up every now and then to sing a terrible song and it would have been a lot more of a long term struggle. I guess most of us would rather be earning lots of money performing in front of adoring fans that being involved in the hard grind of political change, cementing our place at the pinnacle of the global mountain of inequality.
However, we don’t need the celebrities to make a difference. Collectively we do have great power, and the elevation of mediocre performers to the level of deities is one of the daily distractions that prevent us from realising this. The most dangerous virus in the world is not Ebola, it is the billions of normal people accepting their own disenfranchisement. The recent experience in Scotland shows that we don’t need to be passive units of production. Rising only from our political slumber on election day or on the bequest of a jaded millionaire rock star. In the closing days of the Scottish Referendum the political elite were clambering over themselves to give Scotland more power. They were petrified by a grass-roots movement that fell just short of breaking the status quo. Normal people were awoken from a previously dejected and deferential stupor and are forcing change.
We can organize, campaign, be passionate and make a difference. It takes time and effort but in this interconnected world this sort of thing has never been so easy. You will find it far more rewarding than listening to any album by any of the people involved in Band Aid. So please give to a charity targeting the Ebola crisis but, if you really want to make a difference resolve yourself to making political change. Form groups online, raise awareness, have meetings and grow.
See what kind of place you can help Sierra Leone or Liberia become in 30 years time.
It is time we removed the Band Aid and started to help the poorer countries of Africa slowly find their own solutions.
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