The Politics of Band Aid

Does the backlash against Band-Aid centre attention upon the politics of celebrity activism? Charlotte Fraser looks at the role it has in detracting attention away from broader, structural and long-term factors which have contributed to the Ebola crisis

Band Aid is a charitable enterprise which brings celebrity artists together to record music and send proceeds raised by sales of the tracks to combat humanitarian crises. Traditionally fronted and organised by Bob Geldof, Band Aid has come together multiple times over the last 30 years, has attracted some major names in the music industry and has raised billions in aid.  In November 2014, the 4th reincarnation of the original Band Aid group from 1984 released Band Aid 30 in order to raise money for the Ebola crisis in Africa. Geldof presented the campaign to the public as “the most anti-human disease” but, with the public’s help, as a combatable problem, “we can stop it, and we will stop it.”

©Matthias Muehlbradt/Creative Commons license

©Matthias Muehlbradt/Creative Commons license

Band Aid 30 has elicited criticism and galvanised debates across media platforms. Whereas past releases of Band Aid singles passed with relatively little controversy, this current one has unleashed a debate about Band Aid and its effects. Critics argue Band Aid and its lyrics are patronising and perpetuate a singular image of Africa. Others focus on celebrity responses and their reasons for refusing to participate in the record. Lilly Allen, Adele, Fuse ODG among others have openly announced their turning down of participating in the record and even Emeli Sande has noted her dissatisfaction with the lyrics and has admitted that her edits were rejected for the final version.

This debate on the politics of Band Aid opens a space for alternative perspectives on the nature of international aid and counters some generalised perceptions of Africa. Indeed, Africa is a diverse continent with some of the world’s fastest growing economies and should not be singularly represented through the lens of poverty and destitution. However, for all the merits of the backlash against Band Aid, it has largely been overtaken by two opposing trends.

The trend towards collectivism

Critics note that Band Aid is in danger of perpetuating damaging binary structures of “us” and “them”. This ‘othering’ is a relic from colonialism whereby the ‘civilised’ Westerners went to educate and save the, non-western, ‘others’ of non-Western societies. This myopic stance sustains perceptions of Africa as somehow below Western civilisation. Such a simple differentiation leaves no room for a multiplicity of voices. It is reflected in the less-than-nuanced lyrics of the Band Aid song, and although it would be myopic to boil down a broader problem of power relations to one song, there is a danger that these lyrics reflect and perpetuate damaging and misconceived perceptions of Africa. This is an important consideration and is parodied for example in the Radi-Aid, Africa for Norway satirical video.

The trend towards hyper-individualisation

However, there is an additional element to this which needs to be teased out. Whilst on the one hand the concept of “us” suggests some kind of commonality and unity, the response to Ebola through Band Aid demonstrates a simultaneous yet converse  trend towards hyper individualisation.

As long as the response to Ebola remains centred on the actions of a few individuals, the effect will be that Band Aid becomes more about the politics of charity and celebrity activism than efforts to  combat the disease. Thus, criticism and counter-criticism concerning the politics of Band Aid actually serves to focus attention on the West, rather than what is, or is not, being done on the ground to combat Ebola. For example, much attention has been centred on Adele, her refusal to participate in Band Aid and instead to quietly contribute money to the appeal. The media frames this as a singular response to a very complex problem when it is widely agreed that combating Ebola requires a coordinated response at an international level. The danger with the politics of Band Aid debate is that it has the effect of centring the response to the Ebola crisis on a few individuals.

The broader problem with this trend towards hyper-individualisation is that it presents Band Aid as a panacea, when it really is a plaster to cure a few short-term problems without engaging in serious and nuanced debate about why the outbreak developed into the crisis it now is. Furthermore, it allows a sense of altruism for those artists and the people who buy the single allaying the ‘white man’s burden’.

The distraction of Band Aid

The reasons are far more complex and long-term than discussions around who has sung for Band Aid, really engage with. As Harman shows, the health systems of countries suffering under the current Ebola outbreak and their problems with containing it can partly be explained by a lack of government investment in public health infrastructure or heath surveillance.

©DFID - UK Department for International Development/Creative Commons license

©DFID – UK Department for International Development/Creative Commons license

The reasons for this failure should be explored and rectified. Is it governmental incompetence? Or perhaps the sheer number of actors such as NGOs and bilateral aid agencies playing a role in national strategic plans? A lack of funding and flexibility to respond to needs on the ground, enhanced by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) prioritisation of HIV/AIDS, malaria and reducing child mortality? In truth it is probably a mixture of all these factors, and more.

These factors all points towards a recognition of long-term, structural problems which have contributed to the current crisis. There is a very real danger that the debate surrounding Band Aid presents this Ebola outbreak as a one-off, short-term problem that can be funded and solved; it does not encourage engagement in the broader issues of international politics. And it does not encourage thinking around more nuanced, thought-provoking questions as to why Ebola has escalated to the problem it currently is.

Band Aid is any fundraisers dream and it is raising money for a highly worthwhile cause. There is, however, a need to engage with the debates that Band Aid opens up to ensure that the attention remains upon the real issues, rather than on the politics of charity and celebrity activism.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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