“It’s Christmastime, there’s no need to be afraid…”

On Christmas Day, these words heralded a festive playlist staple: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. I sang along – until some lyrics made me pause: “Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow; do they know it’s Christmastime at all?”. As the song continued, I realised for years I had no context, just a vague impression of starving people far away. Why was the song written? How does it represent famine in Africa? And what impact has that representation had?

Band Aid: A fundraising success in response to crisis

Famines are extreme situations of food insecurity characterised by high mortality. Causes are complex, including combinations of droughts, warfare, and political situations such as misguided land management policies.

Ethiopia has a long history of famines. In 1984, droughts compounded by civil conflict and delay in international assistance resulted in a famine that caused up to a million deaths and had long-term consequences for survivors, especially children, whose growth was stunted by 5cm.

In response to news coverage of people suffering, Bob Geldof led a group of prominent musicians to form Band Aid and release “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, which spent 5 weeks at No. 1. The celebrities used their influence to invite the audience to join in their sadness and outrage. The action of buying the record created good feeling and a sense of community. It sold 3 million copies, raising awareness of the famine and funds for humanitarian relief.

Music Video for “Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (BandAIdVEVO, 2011)

Problematic pictures: Enduring stereotypes

Band Aid relied on graphic images of starving Africans to shock the audience. This fundraising practice was already established by NGOs, but while effective at generating donation, it avoids engagement with underlying causes of hunger and poverty.

Combined with these images, the lyrics create a contrast between ‘us’ and ‘them’, echoing colonial views of Africa as inferior, barren and helpless. Locating the source of the problem in Africa removes the need for the audience to question the West’s role in Africa’s underdevelopment. Referring to a place with no rivers ignores the presence of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, depicting famine as a purely natural disaster. The fate of Africans is portrayed as divorced from those of the audience; famine simply exists and the audience should be thankful they are not the sufferers. This narrative of natural disaster obscures the complex, political nature of the emergency. Rather than pressure on political leaders, the call to action comprises only buying the record.

The continued success of Band Aid’s song, as it is replayed every year at Christmas, contributes to enduring stereotypes about famine and Africa. These already existed, but Band Aid’s huge audience and visualised nature consolidated the view of Africans as objects of pity to be saved. Research by VSO found that a one-dimensional view of developing countries, centred on drought and famine, endured, with UK as ‘powerful giver’ and African countries as ‘helpless recipients’. This is problematic as it is hard for people to identify with others when they view them as a mass of victims rather than individuals, and minimises their ability to engage with global issues.

The difficulty of presenting a more political perspective is seen with “Starvation”, the only famine charity single to feature African artists. Proceeds went to War on Want, an activist organisation that saw famine as man-made. Lacking the prominence and coverage of Band Aid, the song peaked at number 33.

Music video for “Starvation” (mrtibs, 2015)

Beyond pity: Changing representations

 The Radi-Aid project calls out the use of negative stereotypes in charity adverts and advocates for campaigns that avoid single stories, provide context and portray people with dignity. Their research in aid-receiving African countries shows that while people recognised the use of negative images are deliberate tactics to show problems and raise funds, they called for more diversity of age and race and images that show Africans as part of the solution. Dignity was emphasised, with participants feeling strongly that images depicting death, bloodshed and nudity – as seen in Band Aid’s video – should never be used.

mock adverts: which image do you prefer? radi-aid
This mock advert was used to ask which image people prefer. Results: Neutral 66%; Happy 21%; Sad 13%. Photo: Edward Echwalu Design: Click Design. From Radi-Aid.

Radi-Aid created a checklist for charities, in order to move away from images solely based on creating feelings of pity. Over the past few years, a positive trend has been seen towards adverts that provide context for issues, are realistic about the charities role and the way donations can help, and portray people with dignity.

Yes, they know it’s Christmas: Food insecurity in Ethiopia today

Ethiopia is ranked 93 out of 119 in the 2018 Global Hunger Index. 21% of the population is undernourished, with high rates of chronic childhood malnutrition. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network’s projections show some stressed and some crisis areas, highlighting poor seasonal rainfall in pastoral areas and sustained ethnic clashes as causes. The FAO expect livelihood needs to rise and food insecurity rates to worsen.

In face of such pressing challenges, why care about representation? Because how we see other people and understand complex challenges matters. It has implications for how we react, as seeing a wider political context enables us to recognise the structural inequalities behind food crises . Recognising the suffering of others with not just pity, but a politics of justice  begins to breaks down the ‘us’ and ‘them’ division, see others as equals, and focuses on long-term solutions.

christmas hits
Time for track 2 to retire. Photo: Geografood1


So while in Ethiopia the large Orthodox population celebrated Christmas on the 7th of January, I tidied up my own Christmas decorations. Perhaps it’s time to leave “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in the cupboard for good.