As we approach Christmas our thoughts naturally turn to the coming of a saviour. No, not Jesus. Bob Geldof.
I actually like Bob Geldof. At least he bothered. While many will see him as the epitome of arrogant world-saving popstar do-gooder, to me he is a guy trying to do the right thing in an energetic and undeniably successful way. (Although he did once describe anti-poverty campaigners as “wankers dressed as clowns”, which was bad.)
Geldof has probably done more for the cause of Africa than most of his vocal critics – while he is best known for the 1985 Live Aid concert his work on Africa goes well beyond that. But he and his band of troubadours have also done great damage. He is responsible for the most egregious example of white saviourism of the 20th century. Possibly of all time. And it matters, because it has influenced a generation of westerners in their attitudes to Africa.
Instead of images of power, resistance, resilience, joy, dignity, we got “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and as the season comes round again, the “clanging chimes of doom” will accost you on the most fleeting dash to the high street.
Great song, of course, in a pop sense. Memorable. Grand. Just terrible lyrics. The assembled cast of greats paint the bleakest possible picture of Africa: “a world of dread and fear” where “no rain or rivers flow” – yep, that’s Africa for you, 100%. Kind-hearted westerners are urged to “help the helpless”, and indeed to “feed the world”.
To be fair, it was written at the height of a horrific famine in Ethiopia, and to be further fair the simple humanitarian impulse of the song did inspire many of us to become involved in international issues. No-one is born understanding power, trade, empire and the causes of poverty. I started to work in international cooperation spurred by the simple charitable impulses with which we are indeed all born. Sympathy. Kindness. I knew I was privileged, and I wanted to help people living in poverty. It was only over time that I got educated – mostly by Africans – and learned to critique the “aid” narrative and the linear concept of “development”.
Anyway, enough generosity to the white saviour brigade. It’s a heinous song and they should have known better. That it was remade in 2015 is doubly heinous and says all you need to know about how reluctantly the British psyche is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century (and yes major INGOs, I am looking at you too. “We the helpers” ffs).
And what makes it even heinouser – and this is now finally the point of this article – is that on the other side of the Atlantic a different song was being written for the same occasion. A song which does something very different with the call for international solidarity.
Back then I never really took “We are the world” seriously. It felt cheesy from the off. And I preferred the slightly rocky, emotionally stark stadium screaming of DTKIC? to its smooth perfect American cousin. But my musical preferences are irrelevant.
The point is the lyrics. The narrative. The story being told. The story the rich west is telling itself. While Bob Geldof and Midge Ure set up a world of us and them, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson say we are the world.
For those readers versed in the MDG/SDG evolution you could say that DTKIC? is a perfect hymn to the MDGs, whereas WATW is an SDG anthem.
The MDGs (Millennium Development Goals, a set of objectives agreed at the UN in 2000) were about some countries (the supposedly “developed” ones) helping other “developing” countries develop. What can we do to help you?
The SDGs are different (Sustainable Development Goals, UN objectives agreed in 2015). They apply to everyone. It’s not just about ending disease hunger and poor education in some countries, it is about all countries achieving a development that is sustainable, an end to overconsumption, an end to the destruction of planetary ecosystems. We are all in this together.
This simple difference already makes WATW far more modern than DTKIC? but listen carefully and there is a line in the American song that is quite surprising. Just as Bob’s gang are singing about how there won’t be any snow in Africa or something ridiculous, MJ’s lot are singing this: “There’s a choice we are making, we’re saving our own lives.”
What? At the height of a terrible famine some of America’s greatest artists are singing about saving their own lives! What on earth is this lyric trying to say?
Maybe they meant that when we work to end famine, inequality, conflict many miles away in other parts of the world, we are also saving our own lives because the world is small and we’re all interrelated. Hunger and conflict lead to war and migration which impact us all – just look at how the war in Ukraine is impacting global energy and food prices. This is a poetic form of the “long term national interest” argument which is commonly made in international development circles. Nothing new here, but still a whole lot more inspiring than the slosh charity perspective we are served by the Feed the World chant, and very much what we need to hear in this era of economic austerity when people in wealthier countries do have to hear about what’s in it for them, however much I would love this just to be about doing the right thing.
Or maybe the line goes beyond material and political self-interest and implies the shame of living in a world with so much unfairness. There is some kind of moral life that needs saving when there is so much wealth on one side of the world and so little on the other. Some might think this self-indulgent. But it’s a very old sentiment and one found in the great liberational texts of the 20th century including Frantz Fanon, who insisted that colonialism was a prison for the coloniser as well as for the colonised. Martin Luther King said this: ““Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
But there is a third interpretation which takes us to where I think we really need to be going. In both of those first two interpretations, there is still an us and a them, separate groups in the story. Sure the American song may be more progressive than the patronising British one, but the we in “our own” is still the pop singers and their immediate audience.
But what if “our own” doesn’t refer to us as opposed to them, but is simply intended to include everyone? Every human. We are saving our own lives because the communities suffering from hunger half-way across the globe are us, their children are our children just like the children in our house, or down our road.
It is sad that this even has to be said or sung. Surely our common humanity should be plain obvious. But sadly we humans have done well at building barriers and distance, and we do need artists and leaders to remind us constantly of this most basic truth. Imagine there’s no countries, sang John Lennon. A brotherhood of man. We don’t have to be experts in migration policy and border policing to imagine that. We just have to do away with the great big them of Bono’s famous and very questionable lament “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” and replace it with the all-embracing us of “We are the world”.
Almost 40 years later it feels like our analysis has truly moved on. That today’s push to decolonise aid, health, the curriculum, statues, and everything else is unstoppable. That we cannot go back to the uncritical simplistic saviour days symbolised by Live Aid. But anti-immigrant rhetoric is ramping up all over the world. And the great power games of the large countries are tempting millions again to the false haven of nationalism. Make America/China/Britain/France great again! Make [insert country] great for the first time!
Scary times. People often ask me how I can still campaign for deep internationalism (our current campaign for Global Public Investment was described to me once as ‘multilateralism on drugs!”) at a time when things seem to be moving in the opposite direction. I simply reply, “If not now, when?” Have a great Christmas.
You can also find this article on the Global Nation Substack where similar articles are published weekly: https://globalnation.substack.com/
This article was first a talk given to the wonderful students of Roundwood Park School, Harpenden, UK.