Funds are needed to fight Ebola; yes, people are suffering; yes, it can be good to “do good”. But it is never good to parade the suffering of others without their consent, especially when showing them stripped of dignity.
Have we learned nothing? Thirty years ago, the Band-Aid video showed pop stars with 1980s hair raising funds for “Africa”. But it wasn’t for Africa, even though the resulting record featured a guitar in the shape of a continent. It was Ethiopia, and the resulting “documentary” began with BBC clips of starving people lined up for food in a camp, with the usual flies swarming, hollowed eyes, and white doctors being interviewed regarding their plight. The songs, the recordings, the video – all identified all of Africa with these images of helplessness, sounding the call of the “white savior industrial complex” for a new generation. Despite the feel-good super sales of the song, controversy continues around the question of whether the effort did more material harm than good.
Fast forward to today: The just-released remix of the principal song of the 1984 Band-Aid concerts — “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — plays to the same sentiments with many of the same stars (and some new ones, like One Direction) — and has all of the same problems. Again, have we really learned nothing? The video opens with what was known in the 1990s as “aid pornography” (a term and debate which unfortunately has dropped from the radar screen) – [see my post on the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) Blog on the film “When the Night Comes” and Ayesha Nibbe's CIHA Blog post on KONY 2012"> – shots of dying people – shots that these stars would never allow of themselves. Then we see them filing into the studio one-by-one in the requisite shades, every move (but looking good, not in the throes of death) captured by paparazzi, then emotionally singing, then holding each other, giggling and smiling after they have done their good deed.
Yes, funds are needed to fight Ebola; yes, people are suffering; yes, it can be good to “do good”. But it is never good to show others’ suffering without their consent, especially when showing them stripped of dignity. And as many of the CIHA Blog’s posts and those of others insist, over and over again, what we need is to target the neoliberal austerity policies that have led to the breakdown of health systems in West Africa as well as other areas of the world (including many parts of the U.S.) – see the recent CIHA Blog post by China Scherz as well as others in the ongoing series on Ebola. Representing Africans – yet again – as helpless and without dignity while representing ourselves as knowledgeable problem-solvers (who give up nothing in our attempts to do good) IS part of the problem and NOT part of the solution. We Westerners really should have learned something by now.
*‘Stuck in a moment you can’t get out of’ and ‘Crumbs from your table’ are song titles by the band U2.
* Cecelia Lynch is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for International, Global and Regional Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is also co-editor of the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) Blog, where this post was first published.
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