As Christmas approaches and the infamous Band Aid charity song Do They Know it’s Christmas resurfaces on radios, in supermarkets and in malls, so do old and harmful stereotypes of poor people living in oblivious destitution, in need of a foreigner’s donation to help them escape poverty. These stereotypes portray the poor as passive recipients of aid and poverty as a phenomenon disconnected from structural political and economic processes. In recent years, alternative charity awards – the Raid-Aid Awards – have been organized every December. This is a concerted effort to counteract the negative stereotypes perpetuated by many charity videos and songs.
The Raid-Aid awards were created in 2012 in order to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate and engage people in issues of poverty and development. Every year, the Radi-Aid team nominates the three worst charity videos and holds an Awards Ceremony in Oslo, Norway. They also nominate the best charity videos for the Golden Radiator Award – which are those that defy stereotypes and highlight development problems in creative ways, without resorting to patronizing stereotypes and the us/them dichotomy. Of course tackling poverty is of great importance, but it is possible to fundraise for development projects without resorting to harmful stereotypes.
This year the unlucky winner of the Radi-Aid Award was Compassion International, with the video “Compassion International – The Wait is Over”
The international jury of scholars and practitioners provided the following reasons for their decision:
This video promotes deep-rooted perceptions of Western superiority over the South. It reinforces the white savior complex, and depicts that there is nothing the parents can do for their children other than to wait for the sponsor who can save their lives and their future.
Meanwhile, the Golden Radiator Award was awarded to the HIV & AIDS Alliance, for creating a video that:
…can help break down prejudices and stereotypes against HIV by depicting the ‘positive’ daily life of an HIV positive woman who transformed her own life. The video gives a good amount of information about the situation for people living with HIV/ AIDS and is not presenting them as helpless victims, but empowerful individuals.
Charity videos have been attacked by many, for a long time, and for good reasons. A common critique is that the videos are patronizing (see for example this critique by blogger Bim Adewunmi) and that they undermine the agency of the poor and their political struggles (see for example this critique by Economics Professor Bill Easterly). The charity videos are also criticized for generalizing, misinforming and stigmatizing the whole African continent and the people in it. A lot of Africans are naturally insulted by such portrayals. For example, musician Fuse ODG turned down a request to sing the 2014 remake of Do They Know It’s Christmas because he felt that the lyrics did not reflect the reality of the continent. He cited lyrics such as “There is no peace and joy in west Africa this Christmas,” saying he goes to Ghana yearly for the sole purpose of peace and joy, so singing such lyrics would be a blatant lie (see Why I had to turn down Band Aid).
Unfortunately, despite fundamental critique of the Band Aid approach to charity, every December the blasting of Do They Know Its Christmas in supermarkets, malls and on the radio serves as a reminder not just of which season in which we find ourselves, but also of how incredibly popular these types of charity songs still are. Hopefully, initiatives such as the Radi-Aid Awards can help steer charities towards more respectful and holistic treatments of poverty, development, and aid. Bob Geldof might even agree that this is a good idea – as he admitted last week that he’s also sick of hearing Do They Know Its Christmas in supermarkets every Christmas season.