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Band Aid, cooperation, Orientalism etc.

A couple of days ago, someone I know (who studied at SOAS, like me) wrote a post on Bob Geldof’s initiative against Ebola: Band Aid, take 3. I strongly suggest you read the post and the articles attached.

Well, I personally don’t like We are the world nor Do they know it’s Christmas? – leaving aside any other consideration, I just find these two songs horrible. The videos of the so called Band Aid are to me disturbing: a casual grouping of random celebrities quite self-referential very content of their humanitarian dedication.

I don’t like Bono’s bad habit of educating others on how to fight poverty, nor Geldof’s public scolding of those refusing to take part in his initiative. I don’t even like Peter Singer that much, I feel he’s patronising as well, and I don’t like who is presumptuous enough to tell others how to do charity. To be fair, I have a problem with the concept of charity in itself.

The issue of ‘aid’ is rather controversial. It does good. It does harm. It tries to repair a debt that the white man contracted with the coloured man – the rainbow man? It’s the genuine expression of human solidarity. I don’t feel like sailing these waters, it would require an in-depth analysis (boooring) and a clear-cut opinion, and if I’ve done some research & analysis, I surely lack a consistent and solid opinion.

The point is that reading the Al-Jazeera article, some considerations surfaced in my mind. Namely, is it possible that certain initiatives are perceived as patronizing and anyhow as unwarranted interferences merely and solely because they come from the West? Are they interpreted as the attempt of the white man to suppress the sense of guilt stemming from the heritage of the past blended with a hard-to-die sense of superiority? Simplistically put: then, as we do, we do wrong, don’t we? Or, also: then, maybe we should do nothing at all, isn’t it?

Now, the way I put it is very obviously indicative of a dichotomy: ‘us’ v. the ‘others’. In the 70s Edward Said published a book we are all familiar with, Orientalism, about this binary identity system and the way in which the Occident has looked at and interpreted the Orient. Are we still trapped in this interpretative scheme? This question, hopefully, is one that we all asked ourselves – especially, those studying or working in the field of international cooperation. I asked my self this question several times last April when I was in Jordan with a cardio-surgeon to lobby for the setting up of an NGO. A great idea, pursued by a competent and committed man whom I think highly of, a (cultural?) battle against the passive resistance of local institutions. I wondered whether my partner vehement and vociferous insistence and his constant threat of withdrawing from the project wasn’t indeed a sign of the patronising attitude of the white man towards the notoriously feeble Arab man. Note: I have no doubt this attitude has no place in my partner’s heart and mind, I’m talking about how his strategy of negotiation might have been perceived.
Anyway, the kind of relativism that brings us to question and de-structure the very concept of acting might lead to indifference and passivism, something as obnoxious as hubris and omnipotence. Nevertheless, I believe we need to question everything, even when ultimately we can’t resolve all the contradictions – beware of the man with no doubts and no contradictions!

I suppose the provocation of this post is: are the ‘others’ as trapped as we are in the dichotomy I mentioned above? Do they perceive our caring and our attempts at demonstrating solidarity – sometimes counterproductively or even manifestly opportunistically – on the basis of our general geographical origin? Are we tainted, in their eyes, by our rather shameful colonial experience of the past? I’m somehow reverting the charge of taking agency off their hands (even if this charge is not at all ill grounded), but I’m not, in any way, talking about gratitude – should be self-evident. Rather, I’m trying to make the point that the dichotomy ‘us’ v. ‘others’ is not at all a problem of the West alone but informs the way in which the Orient looks at the Occident (borrowing Said’s terms) as much as it informs the way in which the Occident looks at the Orient, we are all prone to and victims of prejudice. This is why I personally dislike concepts like charity and aid and very much prefer the idea of cooperation. Cooperation between equals, cooperation as working together with a common goal or ideal in mind.

P.S. I would really appreciate comments on this topic as it often causes rather violent inner conflicts. Especially from someone with a different point of view and different cultural background (damn, still trapped in the ‘West and the Rest’!)


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