With the January sales upon us, the seasonal soundtracks have disappeared from the shops. For most of us, it will be another 11 months before we’re once more subjected to the plaintive wailing of “Do they know it’s Christmas?”
Band Aid’s 1984 hit single made it more difficult for the UK public to ignore one of the gravest famines of modern times and spurred a huge outpouring of humanitarian concern. Yet it also reinforced deeply troubling tropes about helpless Africans and white saviours that continues to shape for the worse how people in the UK think about hunger, poverty and aid.
This matters right now because East Africa faces the most severe hunger crisis in a generation, brought about by five failed rainy seasons, conflict, indebtedness, and spiralling food and energy costs.
Around 36 million people are going hungry, and the region risks a lost generation of children permanently affected by chronic malnutrition.
BandAid casts a long shadow. The idea that drought and hunger are simply part and parcel of life in East Africa and, no matter how much help is offered, the region will continue to be a sink for aid simply breeds apathy and cynicism.
This perception also makes it harder to get the story told. The UK public is not so much indifferent towards the current crisis as it is unaware. Media silence twinned with donor fatigue may help explain why, despite early warnings by the UN and humanitarian agencies, the response by international governments has so far been reckless.
The UN Horn of Africa drought appeal is underfunded by 45 per cent in Kenya. Somalia, the worst affected country in the region, still faces a shortfall of $500million.
Slow and underfunded aid efforts may feel like a necessary cost-cutting exercise to some governments. But in the long run, a delayed response costs more in money as well as lives. That lesson was learned after the 2011 drought in the Horn, which killed 250,000 people – half of them before the point at which famine was declared.
Contrast to 2017, in an unsung success, the humanitarian community acted swiftly on an improved early warning system and prevented a major loss of life.
Yet these lessons now risk being lost in a fog of political expedience.
The UK financial contribution to the current crisis is a fifth of what it was in 2017, as aid cuts take effect.
So as we take steps into the new year, the UK urgently needs to play its full financial and diplomatic part in a coordinated international response to prevent major loss of life in East Africa. A fully funded UN appeal is urgently needed.
But this international effort must build on genuine successes. The current situation would be much worse were it not for a decade of investment in climate-resilient agriculture, social safety nets and water conservation. This needs to be scaled up.
Any effort must tackle the root causes of hunger, in a region facing erratic rainfall, rising temperatures, a growing population and widespread conflict.
Action on the climate crisis is key: by keeping the 1.5 degrees target in reach; enabling communities to adapt farming methods; and creating financial buffers that allow people to withstand climate shocks.
So too is action to reform the financial architecture. It is obscene that while it stands on the brink of famine, Somalia is spending more on servicing foreign public debts than any other country.
Almost 40 years on from Band Aid and over a decade since the last major famine in East Africa, it is time to consign the clanging chimes of doom to history.
It is time to move to a more hopeful and accurate depiction of the challenge of extreme hunger, and what can be done about it. There is no better time than now to tear off the band aid, and put that fresh vision into practice.