This weekend, celebrity musicians will come together to record a new version of the 1980s hit Do They Know It’s Christmas?. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure have galvanised a new generation of artists, including One Direction and Elbow, to raise money for the Ebola crisis.
The question is whether this song will actually encourage an understanding of what’s happening in West Africa and build towards the political solutions needed, or whether it will simply reinforce tired and unhelpful stereotypes.
Thirty years ago, celebrities under the name Band Aid released Do They Know It’s Christmas? in response to the Ethiopian famine of 1984. A generation on and many people still associate Africa with starvation and poverty.
The song’s absurd portrayal of the continent (Where nothing ever grows/ No rain nor rivers flow) lingers on; an Africa of helpless, starving children, in desperate need of Europe’s generosity.
In a report published in 2011 called Finding Frames, researchers found that this framing of Africa – what they describe as the Live Aid legacy – remains incredibly strong today. Swept away is the political context of Africa – the decades of empire and slavery through to structural adjustment and the global debt crisis.
Band Aid’s simple message erased all political complexity from the Ethiopian famine – not a natural disaster pure and simple, but a catastrophe used and exacerbated by a brutal government to destroy rebel fighters challenging its authority.
Today, Ebola also exists in a political context, and while agencies dealing with the crisis do need funds, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea also need political solutions to challenge the exploitation that bred Ebola.
Ebola has broken out in a region that has been torn apart by conflicts in recent decades – this much is true. But the countries are not naturally poor. Neither can their suffering be laid solely at the door of corruption.
They are also victims of economic policies pursued by Western countries and corporations.
As the People’s Health Movement said recently, the reason for the Ebola epidemic “lies not in the pathology of the disease but in the pathology of our society and the global political and economic architecture”. A few million dollars will not substitute for the wealth they lose each year.
If celebrities want to help West Africa, there are three things Band Aid might want to say in their new lyrics about the Ebola crisis.
First, Sierra Leone and Liberia are booming. They are enjoying very high growth figures – supposedly the symbol of a country’s “development”. In fact Liberia has the highest ratio of foreign direct investment to gross domestic product in the world and has been growing at above 10% for years. Sierra Leone is now growing at above 20%.
The free-market dogma of the British government would suggest that everything is in place to make the poor richer. But through the takeover of land, exploitation of minerals and privatisation of resources, West Africa’s wealth is leaving in shiploads, just as it always has done.
In Sierra Leone, growth figures largely represent mining activity, and mining corporations have been granted such enormous tax incentives that the government is effectively being fleeced of its wealth. Christian Aid reports that this lost revenue came to nearly 14% of GDP in 2011 when the government spent more on tax incentives than on its development priorities.
They predict the country will lose more than US$240-million a year from tax incentives in coming years, with the vast bulk made up from tax incentives granted to a couple of British mining companies.
So first up, let West Africa keep its wealth. Second, healthcare in the region is in a desperate state and left largely to the private sector. Sierra Leone has the worst life expectancy in the world (just 45 years) and in 2010 had just 136 doctors (in World Bank “per 1 000 of the population” terms, that’s 0). Liberia had even fewer.
This is at least in part because West Africa, like so many regions, has been beaten down by International Monetary Fund policies over many years. Though the IMF has allowed a “break” from their normal policies while Ebola rages, this is hardly a long-term strategy for building up the public sector.
Neither is the mania for private sector healthcare and education that the British government’s development strategy embraces. Though United Kingdom development funds have been made available to support health systems, with some positive results, the UK recently cut its aid to both countries as it promotes greater private healthcare across Africa.
Ebola shouldn’t have become a major epidemic. We need to support the creation of decent public health systems, or at least stop promoting private sector competition.
The final element of West Africa’s crisis is the intellectual property regime embedded in free-trade agreements, which supposedly act to encourage research and development. Ebola proves the system does no such thing – at least not when it comes to life-threatening diseases affecting those without money. Ebola has been ignored by big pharma, though public money is now beginning to oil the wheels of research.
Essentially Ebola is an unprofitable disease. This won’t change until the stranglehold of big pharma over global medicines is broken, and we begin to fund and control medical research publicly.
If celebrities want to deepen understanding of Africa’s problems, they can play a useful role. Even Band Aids can be useful in the short-term. But perpetuating the idea that a continent of helpless people need yet more money from Europe will do far more harm than good. – © Guardian News & Media 2014
Nick Dearden is director of the World Development Movement