Philanthropy is in the headlines, and Bob Geldof has put it there. His work to direct money to fight the Ebola crisis in parts of Africa is certainly tireless—but is it effective? And does he represent the sort of public face that UK philanthropy wants?

Sir Bob and friends recently released the updated Band Aid single, with ‘100 per cent’ of proceeds promised towards the relief effort. Many of the singers have changed since the song was first recorded 30 years ago, and the lyrics have been updated too—although, disappointingly, the casual assumption that Africa depends on wealthy white saviours for their lives remains.

According to Geldof, for the people of West Africa there will be ‘no peace and joy this Christmas’; rather their ‘only hope’ is ‘being alive’. It may tug at the heartstrings, but such sweeping, negative views of a rich and developing continent sit uneasily with reality.

Perhaps we should let Geldof off. After all, the new single made £1 million in the first five minutes of its release. The British public have responded to the crisis—as they did last week for Children in Need—and I genuinely hope it makes a difference.

I’ll take a punt and say the public want Sir Bob to ensure this money gets where it’s needed, and fast. The cash goes to the Band Aid Charitable Trust, a grant-making charity that has given to many of the usual suspects in previous years, those we assume will receive money this time around.

The problem is that although the song may have garnered lots of publicity, it is difficult to find out which specific organisations or projects will benefit from the proceeds. If that information exists online, it is certainly well hidden. But isn’t that the important bit? Of course, it will all wash up in the trust’s accounts in a year or so’s time, but doesn’t the public deserves to know what is happening to their cash before they make a donation?

Geldof’s desire to raise big money is understandable, but there is a danger here, too. To use an old saying: money isn’t everything. In taking on responsibility to tackle the world’s emergencies, and get funding and resources on the ground quickly, rich nations can provide much-needed relief and support. But swooping in without any obvious plan is no solution at all.

While a charity tune about prevention and capacity building wouldn’t have sparked much of a public response, this may well be where money is better spent. Some philanthropists are already funding in this space, highlighting longer-term issues. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr Priscilla Chan, have committed funds with the express aim of preventing a long-term global health crisis. Bill and Melinda Gates have stressed the need for research and development, as well as an on the ground response. Collectively, Zuckerberg and Gates have pledged $75 million.

Too complicated to capture in lyrics? Maybe. But now more than ever we must continue to talk about sustainable development work. We cannot just fund crises.

The public face of philanthropy may need to be a little more boring than Sir Bob, but here it could be more effective, too: someone playing a key role in supporting the long-term capacity building of robust local health systems, donating both cash and expertise, and, as importantly as anything else, making sure potential donors know how their money is going to be used.

This article was first published by Spear’s Magazine here.

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