‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ [Column]


‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ is what famous musicians brotherly sang, referring to the many hungry Africans, living their hopeless lives on the ‘dark continent’. To be more specific, it was the Ethiopian famine which motivated Hollywood to selflessly raise money and awareness for those suffering from hunger and diseases. However, to keep it simple and because Ethiopia alone seemed rather meaningless, the entire continent was called ‘poor’ and ‘helpless’.


Live Aid (1985) was a benefit concert through which musicians globally raised money. Irish singer-songwriter and political activist, Bob Geldof initiated the music-based event, which was held at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia simultaneously. Inspired by Geldof’s initiative, many countries and musicians followed his lead, raising an estimated 150 million pounds. The concert, with performances of artists like Sting, U2, Queen and David Bowie, was one of the largest media events of all time, with an estimated global audience of 1.9 billion, across 150 nations.

Geldof was widely celebrated for his anti-poverty efforts and activism concerning the African continent. Even Queen Elizabeth II recognized the rock star’s “outstanding contributions to social justice and peace,” and appointed him an honorary knighthood.

Slightly different is the criticism of British Africa expert, Richard Dowden in this case. He completely disagrees with the widespread admiration of Live Aid and Bob Geldof. In his book, Africa – Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, he points out that the TV footage of the ‘African’ famine – which accompanied the global live coverage of the concerts – is one of the contributors to the West’s discouraging perception of Africa:

“The downside of the TV footage of Ethiopia (1985) at this time was that it associated Africa with famine and failure. Ethiopia – and Africa as a whole – became the image of a starving, pot-bellied child with stick-thin arms and legs, an image it has taken years to shrug off. Famine caused by war in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa began to create layer on layer of images portraying the entire continent as a pace of hunger, failure and hopelessness. Aid agencies saw the power that images of starvation had in terms of fundraising and exploited them ruthlessly. Journalists also played their part, bending the rules of objectivity to manipulate images and scenes in the belief that this was in a good cause. Soon after the Ethiopian famine, I watched a cameraman in Somalia picking out the most starved-looking children he could find to gather them into a single camera shot.” 

Dowden’s findings are confronting and eye-opening. Despite the good intentions of the musicians and those donating money, the widespread Live Aid-images of protein-bellies, droughts and hopelessness are still etched in Western minds these days. This is rather unfair, especially when looking at Africa’s statistics of the 21st century. Over the past fifteen years, economic growth was on a solid average of five percent, and seven out of ten of the world’s fastest growing economies are to be found in the region underneath the Sahara.

Admittedly, it is important to not jump rashly from one-eyed Afro-pessimism to an equally one-eyed Afro-optimism. Especially as a famine currently strikes several regions in the Horn of Africa and South Sudan, causing the suffering of millions. Humanitarian aid is of lifesaving importance in these cases. But then again, the West should refrain from historical stereotypes and generalizations, describing the entire continent as ‘hungry’. Imagine how Europeans would respond, when generalizations would be made about Europe, based solely on Greece.

Perhaps, three decades after Live Aid, it is time to polish the general perception of Africa and avoid talking about the continent in broad brushstroke terms. And perhaps, it is time to become aware of the fact that tragedy is able to walk side by side with rapid, unforeseen progress.

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