It is the 23rd of October 1984. BBC television shows the first of a series of broadcasts from Korem, a hamlet in Ethiopia presented as the epicentre of the famine that grips the country. For those of a certain generation, the almost beautifully stunning pictures of white clad figures hunched together in small groups on the plains of Korem have an enduring symbolic power. And the words at the start of the report became engraved in common memory: ‘Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth’.
This broadcast became arguably the most famous and influential television report of the late 20th century (certainly so until the genocide in Rwanda) – and was eventually shown by 425 world broadcasting organisations with an estimated global audience of 470 million people. One in this audience was Bob Geldof and the report subsequently gave birth to Band Aid, Live Aid and the wider current of celebrity humanitarianism since, combined with an unprecedented drive in terms of charity campaigning and fundraising.
Today, 30 years after the first broadcast, what are its enduring legacies? Much has been written about the ways in which the broadcast distorted reality and the underlying dynamics of famine at the time – this was not a biblical event but a man-made catastrophe made worse by political power struggles and the Cold War. More importantly when looking at lasting legacies is its sustained influence on the representations of suffering and ultimately the legitimacy of humanitarian causes. The BBC broadcast was instrumental in producing a certain type of ‘victim’ as worthy recipient of celebrity engagement and wider moral compassion. This ‘victim’ is the innocently suffering, not for example the freedom fighter with a Kalashnikov in his or her hand in order to fight a system that denies people their basic rights. As Suzanne Franks points out in a recent commentary for The Guardian, fundraising for the contemporary humanitarian disaster in Syria has been difficult, as here we find ‘a complex story without clear goodies and baddies’, a story not easy ‘to convey, either for journalists or NGOs’.
The lasting legacy of the BBC broadcast is probably best captured in Keith Tester’s notion of ‘common-sense humanitarianism’. Tester defines this as ‘the humanitarianism of media audiences who rely on unquestioned myths to make sense of the suffering of others’ with the purpose of soliciting an affective response. Ultimately, it aims at the mobilisation of empathy rather than the recognition of rights and ignores that humanitarian disasters and the suffering of strangers is strongly intertwined with a global political order in which inequalities have reached unprecedented levels. Important mediators in the public representation of common-sense humanitarianism are some of the celebrities who entered the scene after that BBC broadcast 30 years ago – Tester in fact calls Geldof the first ‘celebrity of common-sense humanitarianism’ and still its archetype – even though he has since been overshadowed by other more famous travellers.
Where engagement of celebrity-humanitarians and media audiences combined has moved beyond pure concern with direct suffering and humanitarian emergencies, towards what seem like political causes, similar dynamics are still at work. Causes that are worthy of engagement are those that can be represented in clear binary terms of right and wrong – even if the underlying reality, like during the time of the famine in Ethiopia 30 years ago, is always more complex. Celebrity humanitarians have also adjusted their role from Geldof’s call for direct engagement or rather immediate donations: Contemporary celebrity humanitarians aspire to assume the role of mediator between those moved by empathy on behalf of the suffering ‘other’ (‘us’, the celebrity’s audience) and ‘our’ respective governments or other leading policy makers.
A prominent example of the latter is the celebrity intervention into the political and humanitarian dynamics in Sudan, in relation to the crises in Darfur as well as in relation to the creation of South Sudan as an independent state. In relation to the latter, the narrative propagated by a number of celebrities, most prominently perhaps George Clooney alongside Matt Dillon and Don Cheadle, was that African-Christian South Sudan had fought a two-decade long battle for independence from the Arab-Muslim ‘chauvinist’ North. This fight was depicted by those Hollywood celebrities in almost biblical terms – not unlike the BBC broadcast of famine in Ethiopia – as akin to the heroic struggle of David, the Christian-African underdog in this reincarnation, against Goliath, the more powerful and resource-rich Muslim-Arab adversary who was at the same time supported by the likes of undemocratic China. In that version of events, the complex realities of the various conflicts in Sudan, the fact that those do not run along faith-based and/or racial lines, as well as the fact that originally the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) under its then leader John Garang was not fighting for an independent state of South Sudan but a democratic united Sudan (and included fighters beyond the geographical boundaries of what was to become South Sudan), was nowhere to be found.
Daniel Howden wrote in an opinion piece in the Observer in December 2013 that this ‘seductive story’ not only informed public opinion but also ‘found its way into the building of a state’. While there is a danger to overstate the actual role of celebrity humanitarians in the creation of South Sudan (and those celebrities have been remarkably quite since violence erupted again in the new country of South Sudan in December 2013 and a long-term political solution remains elusive), celebrity humanitarians can be seen as important parts of transnational advocacy networks that have been on the rise over the last decades.
Such networks are at their most successful when they focus on themes that lend themselves to simple narratives, on stories that can easily be reported by the media and have a clear moral message, and one of the – if not the – archetype of such a story was the BBC broadcast on famine in Ethiopia 30 years ago. In turn, the agendas promoted by celebrity humanitarians rely on moral values and discourses shared by a large public – once to feed the starving children of Ethiopia, now to speak out against ‘evil’ or what are depicted as threats to ‘our’ way of life in various forms – and call for acts of compassion that cost ‘us’ very little – a fiver here, a letter to ‘our’ government there.
Ultimately, common-sense humanitarianism and its representation of suffering undermines meaningful acts of global solidarity.
For two pieces I wrote on lasting legacies of the famine in Ethiopia see: The long shadow of Band Aid humanitarianism: Revisiting the dynamics between famine and celebrity, Third World Quarterly 34(3), 470-484 (2013); see: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01436597.2013.785342 AND ‘The Ethiopian famine’ revisited: Band Aid and the antipolitics of celebrity humanitarian action, Disasters 37(1), 61-79, 2013; see: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7717.2012.01293.x/abstract (feel free to email me for a copy of both articles)
Suzanne Franks, Ethiopian famine: how landmark BBC report influenced modern coverage, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/oct/22/ethiopian-famine-report-influence-modern-coverage
Daniel Howden, How Hollywood cloaked South Sudan in celebrity and fell for the ‘big lie’, The Observer, page 31, 29 December 2013.
Keith Tester, Humanitarianism and Modern Culture, 2010, The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Link to the original BBC broadcast: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8315248.stm