Band Aid, famine and bone-headed celebrities

Even in 1984, it seemed gobsmacking that no one questioned the single's appropriateness

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'Feed the world', they pleaded 20 years ago, to a soundtrack of Christmas chimes, but did anyone listen? Sir Bob Geldof, the driving force behind Band Aid, has recently returned from Africa where, he says, conditions have not improved since he first assembled a starry cast in 1984 to raise money for starving children. Geldof says he is sickened by the fact that many Africans still regard hunger as normal: "Today more people die of hunger than of war, Aids, polio, TB and malaria combined in Africa," he declared.

'Feed the world', they pleaded 20 years ago, to a soundtrack of Christmas chimes, but did anyone listen? Sir Bob Geldof, the driving force behind Band Aid, has recently returned from Africa where, he says, conditions have not improved since he first assembled a starry cast in 1984 to raise money for starving children. Geldof says he is sickened by the fact that many Africans still regard hunger as normal: "Today more people die of hunger than of war, Aids, polio, TB and malaria combined in Africa," he declared.

Geldof must have experienced a powerful sense of déjà vu yesterday when he persuaded another bunch of pop stars, including Katie Melua, Will Young, Jamelia, Beverley Knight and Ms Dynamite, into Sir George Martin's Air Studios to record a new version of the original Band Aid single, "Do They Know It's Christmas?". Everyone involved in the project - Sir Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams and Dido had already recorded their contributions - is being upbeat, which cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the worst songs ever written and performed.

"Musically it is very now. Very current. I really like it," Ms Dynamite said bravely, considering that the new single is already being tipped to join the ranks of candidates for all-time dreadful Christmas numbers ones. It is a crowded field: think Rolf Harris singing "Two Little Boys" or Clive Dunn performing, for want of a better word, "Grandad". Clearly something happens to people who buy singles at this time of the year, putting them in the mood for repeated doses of sugary sentimentality as they prepare to spend several trying days cooped up with their relatives.

But the Band Aid single is problematic for other reasons. Even in the more innocent age in which it was first recorded, it seemed absolutely gob-smacking that no one involved in the project questioned the appropriateness of singing "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in the context of a famine in Ethiopia. Not only was it hard to believe that starving children and their parents had given much thought to Santa, but as Julie Burchill pointed out at the time, many of the intended recipients of Geldof's largesse were Muslims.

Two decades later, with Islam at the top of the political agenda, it would be reasonable to expect a greater degree of cultural sensitivity from even the most bone-headed celebrities. What makes it even worse on this occasion is that the proceeds of the record are intended for Sudan, where the Darfur region has become notorious as the site of a savage religious and ethnic conflict, prosecuted against the Christian and Animist population by the Janjaweed (Muslim) militia. The prospect of starvation in Darfur over the next few weeks is not the result of the harvest failing or some other natural disaster but the deliberate destruction of crops in the course of this conflict.

In May, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights identified massive human rights violations in Darfur, including repeated attacks on civilians by the Sudanese government's military and its proxy militia forces. It talked about murder, rape and pillage, and then in July, Amnesty International produced detailed evidence of the gang rape of children, sexual slavery and the abduction of girls as young as eight.

The British government is already the second largest bilateral donor of aid to Darfur after the US, having allocated £62.5m in the past 14 months. It is true that more money is needed - the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, reported in July that the UN appeal for Darfur was underfunded by $200m - but the most urgent problem is political will. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, recently prompted admiring headlines when he told Geldof he would waive VAT payments due to the Government on sales of the Band Aid single. But this small gesture is dwarfed by the continuing reluctance of Tony Blair to send British troops to prevent further war crimes in Sudan.

The British government contributed a paltry £2m to the ceasefire-monitoring mission led by the African Union, whose presence has not stopped attacks on refugees. Last week the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was caught on the hop at a press conference to launch his annual Human Rights Report when he was questioned about an incident that very day in which Sudanese police fired tear gas and beat residents of the El-Geer refugee camp in front of helpless UN and African Union officials.

In this context, asking people to buy a single and hum "Feed the World" seems banal. (I can't even bring myself to comment on the breathless announcement that Damon Albarn of Blur was going to cook "African cakes" and serve tea to the thirsty singers yesterday.) For people who like pop music, but don't know much about Africa, it also threatens to obscure the real reason why starvation threatens more than a million people in Darfur - and the fact that the they desperately need more than hand-outs.

"The only sustainable solution to the crisis in Darfur is a political one which addresses the underlying causes of the conflict," the Foreign Office admitted last week. Try setting that to music and see if it goes to number one.

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