AIDS and aid are for life, not just for the New Year
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So it's that time of year again. Student, regional and national charities are rallying you for money. Like Christmas, or Valentine's Day, pressure is put on the consumer to spend their pennies on material things, or in this case donate towards aid programmes, as a testamount to your humility. It seems these token gestures of good will, coupled with the occasional accompanying emotive BBC documentary around this time of year, are sufficient in giving us our yearly dose of self-betterment. After some reflection we put the issue back into the closet of our mind, like a Christmas tree back into the attic, or a Valentine's card back into a drawer. It is only when the next year comes around, when another charity fundraiser at work or university occurs that this sentiment will return. At Easter I attended a Durham Student Theatre (DST) trip to Zambia, which highlighted the realities of providing aid and its impact on AIDS itself. In the Zambian capital of Lusaka we worked as volunteers in various local organizations and schools, using drama as a tool to educate and raise aspirations. This experience furnished a new insight into local issues of poverty, education, domestic violence and finally, HIV/AIDS. Before arriving in Zambia my perception of life on the ground had been influenced by various Comic Relief, Live AID and Red Cross adverts and articles that I had read. My views were shrouded in stereotypes; the human condition seems prone to typify all things complex, into manageable bite size chunks. The Africa-problem has, in a sense, been commodified. The term ‘Africa-problem’ is used with deep irony here, as people still seem to term Africa as one country. We buy free-trade coffee with romantic pictures of grassroots farmers and purchase wooden giraffes in order to ‘support the local economy,’ but please note consumer that the latter are, in most cases, made in China. As for HIV-awareness we proudly wear ‘red bows’ on our Primark vests; a gesture draped in irony as Primark is an infamously exploitative company that does little to ease social grievances. Moreover, in the land of celebrity, Louis Walsh has displayed how the ‘little red bow’ has become a great statement piece to contrast with a nice black roller neck, as on X Factor. These habitual token purchases have engendered a society, which fails to understand the issues beyond general terms. Charity has become a form of consumerism: we quite literally buy into the ‘brand’ of charity. Oxfam, UN, Red Cross – their impressive marketing never ceases to attract mass sponsorship. But why is it, when I was heavily publicising my grassroots-micro project in Zambia on the streets of Durham, and all over Facebook and the wider web that it was challenging to gain any monetary support? Yet when Oxfam, or Help for Heroes stand in the street asking for donations they seemingly receive a greater portion of pennies from people’s pockets? We buy into ‘reputability’ and the ‘image’ as much as the cause itself - just in the way that we buy into the ‘idea’ of Hollister or Chanel. Our donations very rarely go beyond being a purely emotive gesture. How often, do you really read through a manifesto or newsletter of a charity to learn what their aid methodology or objectives are? We seem to be blind consumers, separated from the bare facts of what is happening on the ground, and even more detached from the ego-centric world system of globalised politics, economics, lightly seasoned with a dash of neo-colonialism.
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