Do They Know It’s Christmas?

B. Lorraine Smith
5 min readJan 6, 2017
Women walking across grazing land in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains (photo: Lorraine Smith / 2015)

Remember Band Aid’s 1984 hit single, Do They Know It’s Christmas? You might have heard it playing recently, as this fundraising jingle still gets a lot airtime alongside Elvis’ Blue Christmas and Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. And then there’s John and Yoko’s Happy Xmas (War is Over)

But back to Band Aid’s song: There are a couple problems with it that are as relevant today as ever. First of all, “they” (Ethiopians, the target of the singers and many listeners’ sympathy) do in fact know when Christmas is: it’s January 7th, i.e. tomorrow. This is the day when Christians in Ethiopia, who represent more than 60% of the country’s 94 million people, observe the birth of Christ.

The second thing about “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” is, it’s a bit more complicated than who celebrates what when. The song — a well-meaning, if obtuse effort, inspired by a 7 1/2 minute documentary compiled by foreigners with artful camera technique — proposes a simple solution (“Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time”).

With all due respect to the singers, promoters and those who were moved to donate a massive $24,000,000 in response (more than any previous public charitable giving campaign by a couple decimal points ), ending hunger is a bit more complicated than singing songs and raising money. In fact, these generous donations likely prolonged the famine it sought to relieve. Others more qualified than I am have done excellent work recapping this particular famine relief effort. For example, Suzanne Franks’ cogent book, Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media, pieces together what happened after the aforementioned documentary footage was aired on BBC in October 1984, bringing the plight of Ethiopia’s famine victims into the living rooms of Europe and North America.

Today, by most counts, the country is significantly better off than it was in 1984, and has been cited as one of the most promising “developing economies” among Africa’s 54 nations. So why conjure up the starvation of a million people in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, now?

As I noted in a piece in October last year, Ethiopia has been experiencing renewed — or continuing, depending on your perspective — political turmoil. A recent Washington Post piece offers a “Western-friendly” recap of what…

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B. Lorraine Smith

Recovering ESG "expert"; yarn spinner; distance runner; magical realist. Sensing a path to an economy serving life. also at