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Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Updated: Dec 20, 2017


📷Women walking across grazing land in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains (L. Smith / 2015)


This piece first appeared as a Medium article in January 2017.


Remember Band Aid’s 1984 hit single, Do They Know It’s Christmas? You might have heard it playing recently, as this fundraising jingle still gets a lot airtime alongside Elvis’ Blue Christmas and Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. And then there’s John and Yoko’s Happy Xmas (War is Over)


But back to Band Aid’s song: There are a couple problems with it that are as relevant today as ever. First of all, “they” (Ethiopians, the target of the singers and many listeners’ sympathy) do in fact know when Christmas is: it’s January 7th, i.e. tomorrow. This is the day when Christians in Ethiopia, who represent more than 60% of the country’s 94 million people, observe the birth of Christ.


The second thing about “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” is, it’s a bit more complicated than who celebrates what when. The song — a well-meaning, if obtuse effort, inspired by a 7 1/2 minute documentary compiled by foreigners with artful camera technique — proposes a simple solution (“Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time”).


With all due respect to the singers, promoters and those who were moved to donate a massive $24,000,000 in response (more than any previous public charitable giving campaign by a couple decimal points ), ending hunger is a bit more complicated than singing songs and raising money.

In fact, these generous donations likely prolonged the famine it sought to relieve. Others more qualified than I am have done excellent work recapping this particular famine relief effort. For example, Suzanne Franks’ cogent book, Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media, pieces together what happened after the aforementioned documentary footage was aired on BBC in October 1984, bringing the plight of Ethiopia’s famine victims into the living rooms of Europe and North America.


Today, by most counts, the country is significantly better off than it was in 1984, and has been cited as one of the most promising “developing economies” among Africa’s 54 nations. So why conjure up the starvation of a million people in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, now?

As I noted in a piece in October last year, Ethiopia has been experiencing renewed — or continuing, depending on your perspective — political turmoil. A recent Washington Post piece offers a “Western-friendly” recap of what led to the state of emergency in October, and what — if anything — has changed since. For a more local, and far more nuanced point of view, here is an amazing, even funny in parts, personal account by one of the ZoneNine Bloggers. He was arrested under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorist proclamation, and subsequently detained and “trained” in an Ethiopian prison late in 2016, and his account offers perspective on what’s happening on the ground.


Along with the political disruption fomenting violence, another wave of drought and potentially catastrophic crop failure has been occurring over the last year in parts of Ethiopia. UNICEF offers devastating images that will look familiar to people who’s heart-strings were tugged some 30 years ago. However, beyond a vague mention of “grazing lands disappearing and livestock withering away,” this does nothing to help people understand the role of Ethiopia’s government land ownership policy which has an often negative impact on farming practices, contributing to food insecurity and drastically depleted soil — all of which contribute to drought conditions. This, combined with a lack of real press freedom in this “one party democracy,” creates dangerous pressures.


Interestingly, UNICEF doesn’t mention the word “famine,” a word the current government does not want to see further associated with the country, given its new economic growth and developing appeal to foreign investors. Instead the headline and recurring noun is “drought,” as if famine is a phenomenon caused by a lack of rainfall.


Ignoring the complex relationship between government policy, peace, freedom of the press, and effective farming practices is more lethal than all the well-intentioned sympathy in the world can overcome, even with Bono and the late George Michael in the mix. As this thorough account from Human Rights Watch, Evil Days: 30 years of war and famine in Ethiopia, painstakingly documents, in some of the regions where famine was most severe in the 1980s, there was no significant drop in rainfall, at least not until after starvation had set in. The authors note:


“While climatic adversity and related factors certainly played a part in the tragedy, closer investigation shows that widespread drought occurred only some months after the famine was already under way […]” (page 4)


What the rockstars and I — and millions of others — understood was that crops failed because of drought (“where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow…”) and that therefore people starved to death.

But as history has told us so many times before, famine is not a weather phenomenon. It’s a policy failure, or more fundamentally a failure in the political structures that set and maintain policy.

As Amartya Sen describes in many of his works, including a paper published on UNICEF’s website, “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.” While some dispute the details, I can’t help but notice that California—which would rank as the world’s sixth largest economy if it were a nation — has been suffering a multi-year drought, one that caused Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in 2014. The drought continues to directly affect 30 million people in California to this day, yet there is no famine.


And so at Christmas time this year (i.e. tomorrow) I will indeed “raise a glass for everyone” as the singers propose. Not just for “the deprived” per their suggestion, but also for those who have the courage to share their stories in spite of press crackdowns and internet blackouts, for those who carry on trialling new and better farming practices that fix moisture and carbon in the soil so they weather (and even prevent) droughts over the long term despite government ineptitude. And I will raise my glass too, for those who live in a country where Christians, Muslims and people from a range of other religions live tolerantly of others, even shoulder to shoulder, and who are surely gearing up for a wonderful celebration this Christmas Day.


I would tweak those lyrics even further and say: “the greatest gift we’ll get this year” is not just “life” but also better knowledge, through asking, listening, challenging and seeking, and via a humble recognition that we are only at the beginning of truly understanding one another and ourselves. Now that would be a gift worth giving.


Merry Christmas!


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This piece first appeared as a Medium article in January 2017.

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© 2018 B. Lorraine Smith