Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Culture clashes for Africa

As one who was a teenager in the '80s, I remember well the period when you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing one or another of the wave of pop songs recorded to raise money for famine-struck African nations. The phenomenon started with the British song, after which the idea spread country by country across the globe to the United States, to Canada, to Germany, to France, and to Spain and Latin America. I collected these songs back then--at my core I'm a big ol' sap, and the fifteen-year-old IP just loved them.

The movement wasn't as perfect as people tried to make it, though. It was saturated with the zeitgeist of the '80s: glitzy, wealthy pop stars coming together to record mostly not terribly catchy tunes with thrown-together lyrics, and sending the money they earned off to corrupt regimes that assured most of it didn't actually reach the people who needed it most. More interesting than that in retrospect, though, is the fact that since the whole point was to raise money for starving Africans, each country had to use the kinds of appeals they thought would work on their own citizens. What this ended up meaning was that each of the songs unintentionally got at the core of each country's individual helper ideology.

I mean, compare:

the British one: "We're all happy and snug in our homes, celebrating a Christian holiday. But there is a faraway place where people are so miserable that they DON'T EVEN KNOW that this Christian holiday is happening! Doesn't that make you want to donate money?"

the American one: "People are dying, and we are the ONLY ones who can help them. Their fates rest on OUR shoulders. And besides, it would make God happy. Doesn't that make you want to donate money?"

the Canadian one: "We can't pretend these bad things aren't happening. Instead, we have to prove to everyone that we are a CARING PEOPLE. It's our responsibility. Doesn't that make you want to donate money?"

the Spanish one: "We want to be a SHINING BEACON OF LIGHT to people who are sad and hungry. All we have to do is sing, and we can make that happen. Doesn't that make you want to donate money?"

the French one: "People are dying in Ethiopia, and that's AWFUL. Our song isn't nearly enough, but it's all we've got. There's a slight chance that we can still help them. Doesn't that make you want to donate money?"

and the German one: "In a faraway place, there are people who are suffering horrible experiences that we're going to describe here in excruciating detail. Some of them are even CHILDREN. The few things people have halfheartedly tried to do for them so far haven't helped, and the only reason anybody's ever bothered at all is because they didn't want the fates of these poor sods to weigh on their consciences. Doesn't that make you want to donate money?"

Apparently it worked, too, because all of these projects together raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Which is quite the phenomenon in and of itself, if you think about it.

It seems I didn't quite manage to "resist the pull of cynicism" today. Oops. Sorry 'bout that.

[Update: Welcome, visitors from the Falcon Twin webcomic. There's a certain irony in me getting a link about a "cynicism meter" "going to eleven" (given my tagline at the top, if nothing else) but I suppose it serves me right after this post!]


Tyrone said...

To say all the aid was appropriated by corrupt regimes is overly harsh. Whatever else you may say about Ethiopia today, it is immeasurably better governed than it was then.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Two comments:

1) I'm not sure how you got "all the aid was appropriated by corrupt regimes" out of "most of [the money] didn't actually reach the people who needed it most," and

2) I was referring to the behaviour of the African governments of the 80s, not the current ones.

Jen said...

Is the cynicism award because of the corruption of the African governments, or the differences in Western cultural strategies you detailed? I think that's a marvellous summary of key cultural points across the board. You will get my (first ever) Truth of the Moment Award. For all it's worth. ;-)