Spare a thought for Bob Geldof this Christmas

Kai Hopkins • 5 December 2018

Christmas tree
Source: Tim Mossholder

1st December. That seems to be the accepted time when Christmas can start properly. The adverts have been going since Halloween, but this weekend saw the trees go up, the garish lights fill windows and of course - the Christmas songs on the radio. We all have our favourite – personally, I am a Mariah fan, while my wife loves Band Aid.

At times I suspect Midge Ure is relieved that people often forget he was even involved in the 1984 hit. His co-writer Bob Geldof is easily one of the most annoying musicians around. It is also easy to point fingers and sneer at patronising lyrics – anyone who has travelled in Africa could list many a country that is the perfect antithesis to the picture of Africa Geldof and his A-lister friends portray; “where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow”. Of course they know it's Christmas, Bob, you fool!

In a 2014 interview on Sky News, in response to criticism over the Band Aid 30 re-release, Geldof gave a typical response; "bollocks!". To her credit, the interviewer persisted and repeated her questions, requesting that he used slightly less colourful language this time. Geldof, to his credit, responded exactly as before. For all his flaws – including, I am afraid to say, his singing – he is a straight talker, and that is where I think he can contribute most to humanitarian work. Who can forget in 1985 when he issued the simple and straight-forward funding request "give us the money NOW!".

How many of us working in the humanitarian sector wish we could submit a grant proposal so simple and so direct? And I suspect that a number of funders wish they could receive one so simple and direct too. But this is not the world we live in. Let's not kid ourselves, we are working in complex and difficult circumstances, but the annoying thing is not where we work but how we let context affect how we work. When faced with complex situations the tendency is to create complicated structures; pillars, sub-pillars, committees and working groups and to communicate in an obscure institutional doublespeak.

When the going gets tough, however, its important to do the basics right. And for me, the basics are listening to those we are meant to be helping. Complex structures and convoluted systems may serve some purpose but unless we have simple and clear channels of communication and embed them in whatever systems we feel are necessary, there is a danger we lose focus on the people and get caught up in our own bureaucracy.

Take Bangladesh, where many organisations are doing great work, but determining who to talk to about specific issues or identifying where to plug in feedback from Rohingya to improve the response is difficult. I wonder how Geldof, sitting in Cox’s Bazar, would respond? But there is some progress. GTS and a handful of other organisations are trying to maintain direct communication with both Rohingya and host communities and channel it into the heart of the response. And you know what? People are beginning to listen. Clear, simple regular feedback data is providing a complex response in a complex environment with the information that can help improve programming. Ensuring these voices are at least represented at the table is just the beginning. All those involved could do with channelling our inner-Geldof – clear and direct discussion of the data, with a clear and direct response.

Leading the horse to the feedback water is one thing, but making it drink is hard. Where are the incentives? Where is the pressure? We need more Bob Geldofs, more people who recognise the value of clear and direct communication ready and able – like humanitarian donors – to cut through our complex and confusing systems of pillars and committees.

So if you want to criticise Bob, go ahead. As far as I am concerned, his singing, his hair, and even his irritating personality are all fair game. But don't criticise him for his direct, no-nonsense straight talking. The humanitarian space needs more of it, not less.

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