Philanthropic Poverty

Bono and other philanthropic capitalists push charity to defend property.

World Economic Forum / Flickr

When there is a problem in Africa, who are you going to call? Bob Geldof and Bono repeatedly nominate themselves. But why should anyone’s fate be entrusted to the delusional, creepy, self-parodying rock-star messianism of this pair of rich tax dodgers? What do they have to offer?

The short answer is, they offer us a spectacle. And a spectacle, as Guy Debord argued, is not just a collection of images. It is a social relationship mediated by images. Those who participate in the spectacle get to experience this social relationship in a special way by consuming the images.

The spectacle of Band Aid — a “charity supergroup” responsible for the 1984 festival Live Aid and its hit single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and subsequent events including the 2005 debt campaign Live 8 — is rooted in a colonial relationship to Africa in which, as the political scientist Graham Harrison has shown, “Britishness” is traditionally constructed through campaigns to “save” the continent from blights and disasters. The “feel good” factor derives from the spectacle-positioning of Britain as “doing good” in the world.

However, to the feel good factor, we must add the cringe factor. Band Aid 30 , the latest incarnation of the Band Aid franchise based on an updated version of the 1984 song, has come under unprecedented criticism. The critiques comes from artists who declined to participate such as Fuse ODG and Lily Allen, but also from one of the few black artists to participate, Emeli Sandé. It was outdated, they said, and didn’t reflect the Africa of today — a booming continent that is capable of solving its own problems without being “rescued.”

Yet, the organizers persisted in their course, and were rewarded with the fastest sales for any song in 2014. Somehow, the profoundly outmoded representational form typified by Band Aid 30, while seeming jarringly ill-at-ease with contemporary imperialist relations, continues to appeal to British consumers. It also continues to serve an important function for Bob and Bono, and the model of capitalism they represent.

Band Aid, in Black and White

It would be churlish not to admit that Band Aid has changed in the last thirty years, both in its lyrics and line-up.

When the original Band Aid’s all-white line-up was slammed by black critics in 1984, Geldof writes in his memoir that he replied by calling one a “fascist” and a “whining shit.” He claimed there were no black acts selling sufficient numbers of albums to justify their inclusion. Since none of the three black acts he has chosen to include in Band Aid 30 are currently topping the UK charts, we have to assume that Geldof has been reconciled to what he once derided as “tokenism.”

Nonetheless, the basic format of Band Aid is remarkably unreconstructed. For example, the song still stupidly, patronizingly inquires whether “they” Africans “know it’s Christmas.” The problem with this lyric is not simply, as some have suggested, that it is oblivious of the millions of African Christians who keep abreast of religious holidays. It is that the entire question is predicated on the idea that being unaware of this curious annual ritual is itself evidence of cultural impoverishment.

It is as laughably parochial as if artists from the Western African diaspora were to write a song earnestly asking if poverty-stricken Afghan farmers even know it’s Kwanzaa. The only thing that makes the parochialism less than glaringly obvious is the imperialist relations in which it is embedded, which make the Anglo-centrism seem normal.

Likewise, the song still evokes an eternal, unchanging, and homogenous Africa, distinguished only by weakness and death. And it still casts famine and disease as ahistorical, natural blights, rather than politically determined social facts.

The video for Band Aid 30 is a case study in white savior. It opens with footage of a seriously ill black woman. Her frail, half-dressed body is grabbed at her hands and feet by two people in quarantine suits, and carried off. We don’t know if she consented to be filmed, much less to have her image used. In fact, we know nothing about her: she has no name, no life story, no agency. She is already dehumanized.

The justification for this visual move is, ironically, to “contextualize” the “pop moment.” Making the image as “harrowing” as possible was faithful to that context. But a harrowing image by itself is not context. It is only in its semiotic context that it acquires its meaning. And in the language of the video, the near lifeless black body represents “Africa” as a passive victim.

The story then makes a lurching cut to footage of glamorous, grinning white celebrities being snapped by paparazzi. These people have names, and agency. And they are going to “do something,” even if that means warbling in the syllable-torturing idiom of so many X-Factor competitors. A musical note sounds. It is urgent, uplifting. After the horror we have just witnessed, this is the relief: the saviors have arrived.

The histrionic displays of its stars — particularly Bono’s hallowed countenance as he belts out the immortal line “tonight we’re reaching out and touching you,” coupled with Geldof’s Barnum-esque pitch for this “little bit of pop history” at the song’s launch — are almost meta in their shameless self-importance.

The video, unwittingly and without traceable irony, references a dozen pastiches and parodies of the charity song format, from Russell Brand’s “African Child” to Flight of the Conchords’ “Feel Inside,” and the splendid “Africa for Norway” spoof song, in which African artists sing to raise radiators for freezing Norwegians this winter.

Doing Something

Some of this may explain Geldof’s willingness to contemplate “tokenism” just this once. The best-selling, award-winning black artist Fuse ODG was approached to participate in this year’s Band Aid spectacle, and turned it down. Beyond the “offensive lyrics,” he suggested, he was “sick of the whole concept of Africa — a resource-rich continent with unbridled potential — always being seen as diseased, infested, and poverty-stricken.”

Geldof claimed that Fuse ODG had been invited to write his own lyrics for the song if he felt the originals were too negative. Yet, Sandé explains, “Angélique Kidjo and I made and sang our own edits. Unfortunately, none of these made the final cut.” Band Aid 30’s editorial decisions have still been made by rich white men.

There is, however, a slight mystery here. Geldof, rather than accusing Fuse ODG of not caring about these deaths as he had done to previous black critics, claimed to agree with him, and even joined in the passionate denunciation of this racist, denigrating myth of “Africa.”

Let us pause here to note that Geldof and some of his critics have converged on a type of Africa boosterism that is simply untenable. Geldof, denouncing “this ridiculous image of this continent,” pointed out that “seven of the top ten fastest growing economies in the planet are African.” This is part of a narrative that has been promoted by portions of the business press — particularly the Economist, which began to salivate over “Africa Rising” in 2011.

The reality is that high growth rates for some national economies look a lot less impressive when their high birth rates are factored in. The economist Jostein Hauge estimated that while GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa is around 7.3%, growth rates per person are closer to 1.8%. The region’s absolute poverty rate (70%) has barely declined over the past thirty years, while 80% of employment is in the informal sector.

So while it is true that Africa is not the land of crippling blight and weakness that Band Aid 30 envisions, it is not true that neoliberal capitalism has turned Africa into a booming continent. Indeed, the neoliberal restructuring of African societies, their legal systems, property relations, and labor markets, is to a considerable extent responsible for the current problems.

For example, the under-investment in health care and the over-dependence on privatized healthcare supplied by philanthropic organizations with no accountability, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has compounded the difficulty in containing Ebola.

Nonetheless, Geldof accepts the critique of “this ridiculous image” of Africa as a perpetual victim. Why, then, does Band Aid continue to perpetuate it?

The only half-way serious attempt at a justification for this ritual is that it is at least “doing something.” Of course, there is no reason why “doing something” has to mean producing and consuming a song saturated with racist condescension, produced by an overwhelmingly white music industry clique for the edification of overwhelmingly white audiences.

Bono and Geldof could instead use their considerable status and profile to support the efforts of Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, Malians, and others already trying to address the Ebola crisis, or promote the songs already produced by Liberian, Ivorian, Congolese, and Guinean artists. “Doing something” is the last resort justification for all manner of nonsensical ideas, from “Save Darfur” to “Stop Kony,” as well as being the disgrace note of “humanitarian intervention.”

Indeed, this is where “doing something” intersects with a part of British identity that is fixated on a supposedly lost golden age of global power and pride — a theme that was already evident in the era of Live 8, but whose potency grew in the UK’s post-credit crunch diminuendo.

The image of a weak, helpless Africa fortifies the appearance of a strong, virtuous Britain. It mobilizes the residuum of a colonial, missionary ideology in which liberal, Protestant Britain is motivated to rescue and tutor the weak because of its commitment to universality. And it does so by means of the spectacle format through which an imagined community can most easily be assembled: once, the stadium rock concert, now the X-Factor special.

Additionally, Band Aid’s finances receive very little scrutiny: while the money is the ultimate justification for Band Aid, no one pays much attention to what happens to it. And they don’t have a great track record. The money from Live Aid in 1984, enabled a repressive government and probably perpetuated the Ethiopian famine. Bono’s One Foundation raised almost ten million pounds in 2008, but only 1.2% of that went to charitable causes.

One does not buy the Band Aid single because there is any evidence that it will help anyone with Ebola, or in danger of contracting the virus. One buys the single in order to consume African problems as a form of patriotic empowerment and moralization.

The Canonization of Bob and Bono

Yet, while “doing something” explains the appeal of the spectacle, it does not explain Geldof and Bono’s investment in continually reproducing a remarkably static representation of Africa. One possible answer is that it serves an important ideological function: legitimizing Bob and Bono.

For behind the rock-star personas, Bob and Bono are tough, multi-millionaires sitting on top of hard-nosed business empires, profiting from global flows of investment, and benefiting from tax avoidance and a global economic framework that enriches financial capital.

Geldof recently set up a private equity firm with venture capitalist and former Tory deputy treasurer Mark Florman, with the aim of investing in Africa. Bono is co-founder of the private equity firm Elevation Partners, which profited immensely from its investments in Facebook and other enterprises, and a major celebrity apologist for “free markets” and low taxes.

Bono and Bob each have a humanitarian rationale for defending the system they profit from. Bono has claimed that free markets and capitalism are the only route out of poverty for Africa. And when Geldof was quizzed by a journalist about his tax affairs back in 2012, his response was to lose his temper and repeatedly jab his finger at her, demanding to know how many irrigation ditches she had built with her salary. Like all philanthropic capitalists, he accumulates only to do good.

Listening to these justifications, one would think that Africa, lurking in some benighted prehistory, had never seen irrigation before — never mind capitalism. Only through the efforts of Bono and Bob might they get their hands on both technologies and learn how to use them. And that’s precisely the point.

Bono and Bob offer themselves as Africa’s saviors and in so doing help to depoliticize issues when they are reaching a point of crisis, be it famine, debt, or disease. Perhaps the most telling example of this is Live 8, the series of mega concerts put together by the Band Aid in 2005 as part of a debt campaign. The events were organized on the back of the work of the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign, a group of charities and NGOs committed to relieving the debt burden on the Global South.

MPH was as moderate as could be, and had even proscribed “political” groups from joining. Yet their members complained bitterly about Live 8 hijacking their event. They pointed out that they were not consulted and that the festivals overshadowed their own intended rally against the G8 that year.

In fact, Live 8’s demands were narrowly focused on Africa and were a carbon copy of the goals of Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, a network of bankers, industrialists, and political leaders spreading the “free market” gospel. The events, framed as apolitically as possible, were essentially boosterism for government policy.

Bono and Bob have an interest, as do governments and the rich, in keeping the focus on “aid” for a supposedly helpless continent, even as they oppose political movements which would restrict the property rights of investors through taxes, capital controls, or even more radical means.

Traditionally, one would say that charity is used to mitigate the symptoms of social distress, while leaving its systemic causes intact. Here, it is not even relevant whether the symptoms are soothed. The important thing is the spectacle.

The spectacle of Band Aid 30 is the set of postcolonial imperialist relations in which global capital variously marginalizes, disciplines, suppresses, segregates, and exploits African labor, plus the racist image of Africa as a needful victim perpetually alighted upon by aureate white, millionaire saviors.

Bob and Bono, both embedded in these global relations and the major producers of these images, strike a bargain with consumers. Canonize us: give us our saintly robes, our outsized halos, and our tithes, and we will relieve your feelings of distress and impotence arising from the crisis in Africa. We will enable you to consume African suffering as empowering and uplifting. We will make you fuse as a nation, and “reach out” to Africa.

For the global ruling class, their implicit bargain is slightly different. Canonize us: give us our saintly robes, our outsized halos and our tithes, and we will defuse the moral and political crises arising from your practices in Africa. We will, through the Band Aid spectacle, give you your means of moral re-armament, so that nothing has to change.

This is the sainthood of Bono and Bob: sold on African death, purchased with African lives.