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Poverty Imagery and the ‘Christmas Song’

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In last week’s Acton commentary, “The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” Jordan Ballor touched on the well-intentioned yet harmful message shared by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” the 1984 song produced by the music group, Band Aid, in response to the famine that struck Ethiopia.

Ballor describes the context and some of the song’s lyrics:

The song describes Africa largely as a barren wasteland, ‘Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.’ It continues in this vein. Africa, the onetime breadbasket of the Roman Empire and home of the Nile River is a land ‘where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow.’ The title question likewise plays into the supposed desperation of the continent. The only ‘Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.’ The response to this call is supposed to be charity from the affluent West, to ‘feed the world’ and thereby ‘let them know it’s Christmastime again.’

The song perpetuates an image of Africans as helpless and dependent on outside assistance to support their well-being. It is true that dire situations exist and increased awareness and emergency aid is needed to prevent loss of life, outbreak of disease, and other severe conditions. But overall, do negative depictions serve to accurately portray people in the “developing world,” and their capacity for producing innovation and change in the areas in which they live?

This is the question I pose in the PovertyCure blog article, “The Hopeless Results of Graphic Poverty Imagery,” which highlights the 1984 Christmas Song and similar versions that have been produced since.

I argue that depicting Africans as incapable and destitute ultimately neglects their true nature as human beings. Though it is true that poverty exists in some corners of Africa (and this should not be ignored), a vibrant, energized environment can be witnessed in many others. There are thousands of entrepreneurs like Senegalese entrepreneur, Magatte Wade, who are establishing creative solutions and finding new markets for business and trade.

Wade, who is featured in the new documentary, Poverty, Inc., believes misconceptions about Africa ultimately disincentive potentially beneficial investment and partnership opportunities within the continent. In her article, “Stop Raising Money for Relief and Start Investing in Africa,” she explains:

Millions of Americans are willing to give donations, but do not want to invest in Africa. The implication is that we are unpleasant creatures who may be helped at a distance, but no one wants to get close to us. Meanwhile, Africa has many beautiful spas, resorts, beaches, wildlife safaris, nature preserves, live music events, etc.

Leaders and entrepreneurs in the developing world, like Wade, are becoming increasingly vocal in calling for change, having recognized and experienced firsthand the shortfalls of the traditional donor-recipient charity model and inaccurate portrayals of their respective countries.

They realize that the solution to long-term development and prosperity is not foreign aid, but the creation of partnerships that unleash creative capacity. And to be sustained, these efforts should be firmly rooted within an institutional framework of justice that recognizes and upholds basic rights like private property and rule of law.

Though not flashy, this approach has much greater potential for creating real change, and allows for closer and more understanding relationships with the people we intend to help.

For more see “The Hopeless Results of Graphic Poverty Imagery

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Matthea Brandenburg Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.

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