“Band Aid”

Starving, crying kids!

Starving, crying kids!

I don’t know why but I recently thought of “Band Aid,” Bob Geldof’s feelgood project that aimed to provide food for those afflicted by the 1981-1983 famine in Ethiopia. While attempting to do what one can to help other is a laudable goal, “Band Aid” is pure comedy when viewed through a 2013 lens.

The sleeve itself is worthy of copious ridicule. It is a collage designed by Peter Blake, who is famous for having done the sleeve to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Note the fly covered pastoralist kids at the bottom.

I’m fairly sure that period is where most of the worst images of Africa come from, images that we are unfortunately stuck with.

Whenever I go there, I’m still struck by the disconnect between how the continent is presented by NGO’s and aid groups, and how the place really is. From fundraising ads, you wouldn’t even know that nearly 40% of Africans live in cities and that Africa has 43 cities with more than one million people. While we certainly need to worry about the plight of rural communities and displaced people, a greater challenge will be how to provide sanitation to the hundred of millions of people who live in cities designed for mere fractions of their current populations.

I’m wondering if Geldof and Bono actually visited Africa before embarking on branding Africa. Though it’s pointless to blame a bunch of hair sprayed 80’s musicians for the plight of Africa, I don’t think that they did the continent any PR favors.

It’s interesting to note that not a single African appears in the video, outside of two people of African decent who may or may not be entirely British. In fact, the voices of the supposed recipients of aid play no role whatsoever it the projects implementation as represented by this video. To me, “Band Aid” is a perplexing confluence of the supposed responsibility the West has toward the “uncivilized” world and crass American commercialism. I suspect, however, that emphasis is placed on the latter, and that the plight of “starving children” is merely a vehicle with which to sell and brand goods.

Though the vast majority of the participants of “Band Aid” faded into relative obscurity (Bananarama?), Bono himself and to a lesser extent Sting, continued this model of commercialized philanthropy. Bono created Product (RED), a business model which branded certain upscale products and offered a percentage of the sales to the Global Fund. While the proponents of Product (RED) and similar initiatives claim that they are meaningful simply by creating “awareness” for the issues they target, the near total absence of the recipients of this goodwill prevent one from taking the projects seriously.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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