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Active Partnerships and Engaged Empowerment Equals Lasting Change

by Lisa Glenn, New Global Citizens

I have to admit that I am not much of a fan of holiday decorations. My mother, who loves the spirit of giving and the idea of Santa, collected over 250 Santas in the last 20 years, and something about dragging those down from the attic each year hasn't really inspired me to deck the halls. This bah humbug spirit doesn't extend to Christmas music, though. I grew up in choir, so I know and love the lyrics to most of the classical and pop songs on the radio during the holiday season. Nonetheless, there's one song that really, really gets to me.

Ask my family, and they will tell you that they get angry calls, rants, and texts during the holiday season about "that Africa song." Do They Know it's Christmas? is a very common song on the radio during the Christmas season, and notable lyrics include "there won't be snow in Africa this they know it's Christmastime at all?" The song was developed in conjunction with the 1984 Live Aid concert and focused on the famine spreading across the country of Ethiopia. While it is well-intended and helped to focus the world on a dire need, the lasting message is one of hollow charity. While not my favorite tune, it is a great example of how development can go totally wrong if we focus on a "charity" model, as opposed to one of active empowerment and action. A "hand up" as opposed to a "hand out," if you will.

You see, I've lived in Africa, and there's another thing that rankles me. Africa is a continent, not a country-and no, there may not be snow there this Christmastime. That's because it's currently summer in half of the African continent. That's right, remember back to your geography class, and you can probably pull that knowledge from the recesses of your mind. There are, actually, parts of Africa that do get snow, just like anywhere else in the world, but that generally only happens during the winter months. In fact, it does snow regularly in the mountain ranges of Ethiopia, an equatorial country. So there might "be snow in Africa this Christmastime!" It just depends on where, in this large and varied continent, you are spending your Yuletide.

Additionally, much of the Western world will be happy to know that these Africans are, by and large, well aware of the impending Christmas holiday. In fact, thanks to missionaries throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, much of the continent claims the Christian tradition. You knew this, too, because you studied it in sophomore World History-it's just been a while. And the tune is catchy. My South African friends may celebrate Christmas outside on their patios, but they celebrate it, nonetheless.

There is so much of a "them and us" mentality in the song that it even uses those terms outright! Lines such as "say a prayer, pray for the other ones" or "well tonight thank God it's them instead of you" (emphasis added) put the conversation in such a paternalistic tone, it's hard to repair the message of international partnership and hope that is the positive intent of the writers. It is critical that we are true partners with people on the global scale, and not simply drawing a dividing line between the "haves" and "have nots."

Now I don't aim to nitpick a popular Christmas tune. Ok, maybe I do, but I choose to do so for a reason. If we can get things so wrong as to forget the basics of bioscience or religious history in the recent past, then how wrong may we be getting our development efforts? I assure you that as the writers of this song were composing, they did not call on a dear friend in Ethiopia to collaborate with them on the lyrics of this song. And while they developed a song that mobilized European people to feel sympathy toward African people a world away and to write a check for relief efforts, they also managed to further flatten the vision that the Western world has of "Africans."

Now that the Ethiopian famine is far in the past, Live Aid is a quaint, vintage concert, and the song has spread from Europe to the US, the parts of the song that remain in the public consciousness are the feelings of sympathy for those less fortunate, not partnership to rid our world of challenges like famine. These feelings will not go far to create change. In fact, they often further divide us and convince us that real change cannot happen. When we do not partner with those that we aim to "help," we can obscure the situation even further.

This is why efforts in universal education are so critical to success in development and aid across the world. We must involve thinkers from every region of the world to confront the challenges that face us as part of the human race. If all of our children are not learning to think critically, be digital citizens, and work collaboratively, then we are ensuring that we will always miss the mark in our development efforts. Similarly, we must turn this critical lens onto our efforts in the realm of universal education, to ensure that those who are most closely affected by lack of educational access are empowered to be the decision makers in bringing educational opportunity to their community. Until we do this, we are relying on our own, fundamentally limited, understanding of the world in which we live. Instead, we must become active partners with people around the world to solve the challenges affecting us all. This kind of engaged empowerment and action makes for real, lasting change, as we all come to believe through this process that change can actually occur. This may make for a decidedly less catchy Christmas ditty, but it will make for a decidedly more educated, fair, and inclusive world.


Lisa Glenn is the Director of Programs at New Global Citizens, a nonprofit working to "create leaders, change agents and advocates to solve the world's greatest challenges." 

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