It's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing
Is the bitter sting of tears
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Bob Geldof Bob Geldof in Africa
Ever heard your mother say: “You better eat all your food, because there are people starving in Africa"? Well, chances are she was talking about Ethiopia.
Bob Geldof and co-writer Midge Ure decided to write “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” after hearing a BBC report on the famine in Ethiopia in 1984. Between 1983 and 1985, over a million people starved to death in one of the most horrifying tales of human error and neglect in modern history. Ethiopia is the second most densely populated country in Africa, carrying a population of 91 million inhabitants on a Gross National Income that is, as of Christmas 2012, the sixth lowest on planet Earth. In 1984, the GNI was half of what it is now. When this was coupled with a rising drought after a long period of civil war, it seemed that by 1984 every aspect of Ethiopian life was desperately trying to kill off its populace.
Geldof’s charitable Christmas hit was an immediate success, becoming the biggest hit in U.K. singles history for over a decade, a position superceded only by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997," released in memory of the death of Lady Diana, which holds the current record. Unlike Sir Elton John, Sir Bob (as he is unofficially known – he can’t be knighted because he is Irish) raised $14 million for charity, and not his own lordly pocket. The Christmas chart-topper brought together stars like David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Phil Collins and Bono (among many others) in what Geldof humbly told the Telegraph
is one of the “worst songs in history." Even if that is a gross understatement, it was at least an attempt to address the uncomfortable pangs of conscience that the more fortunate of us feel this time of year, when we are knee-deep in presents and roast-beef, and something in the media forces us to remember that there are places in this world where Christmas never comes.
A coffee farm in Ethiopia
Unfortunately, buying a CD single is not necessarily the answer. The Band Aid Field Director in Ethiopia is reported to have admitted that up to 20% of the funds were diverted towards the Ethiopian rebel militia and used to buy weapons. The Field Director reported that “they claim that as much as £7 million went astray. That sounds like a lot, but it is a tiny proportion of the total amount of aid that went into the region.” In such a complex political situation, it has been impossible to help the starving without helping the rebels, a claim which the idealistic Geldof explosively denied.
Even less fortunately, there is always somewhere in the world that is desperately in need of help; some places just have such tricky geo-political circumstances that make them uninhabitable. For instance, prior to the more recent catastrophic environmental disasters that have struck Haiti in recent years, there were already reports in the media about the mud-pies of Haiti, where people had resorted to eating the semi-nutritious clay in order to alleviate the pain of a belly that hasn’t seen a square meal, possibly ever. These cakes were not free, either (at the last tally the Guardian
reported that they were sold for 1,3p each). One wonders if the people of Haiti even have mud-pies to eat in their present situation.
Whether you buy a CD single for charity or not, the truth is that there can be no happy end to this sad story. As Mother rightly says, you can, at the very least, finish all the roast beef on your plate this Christmas. Perhaps it would please the starving children of Ethiopia to know that your
belly, at the very least, is full.
~ Douglas MacCutcheon
Douglas MacCutcheon is a music psychology researcher at a British university (yes, he experiments on people – if you can call musicians people, that is) and freelance music writer. He is interested in popular music, cultural economics and curry. He also plays classical piano for his mother and amateurishly produces ambient electro which nobody listens to Soundcloud.com/douglas-mccutcheon.
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