Live Aid: the White Pop Star’s Burden

The BBC’s critique of Live Aid replaces the view of Africans as victims with a view of them as corrupt.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Martin Plaut, Africa editor at the BBC, was one of hundreds of reporters who descended on the Horn of Africa in the 1980s to report on the Ethiopian famine. Now, in a new radio documentary, he has suggested that he and other journalists failed to ask some important questions back then. His documentary, Aid For Arms in Ethiopia, investigated claims that millions of pounds raised through Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concerts were diverted to fund rebel military operations in northern Ethiopia. Geldof and Western charities are outraged at any claim they were hoodwinked, and have insisted that they were successful in delivering Westerners’ donations to needy Africans.

While a debate on the problems of the Live Aid jamboree is long overdue, the problem with Plaut’s investigation is that it doesn’t address the basic premise of this mother of all charity appeals: namely that Africans are needy, helpless, childlike creatures who can only be saved by us. Indeed, in arguing that armed groups intercepted all our cash, this investigation can be seen as replacing one prejudice – that Africans need the West to save them – with another: that Africans cannot be trusted with our hard-earned money.

It was through Michael Buerk’s 1984 BBC reports from the Horn of Africa that the plight of starving, impoverished and embattled Ethiopians first made itself felt across the world. Buerk famously described the situation in Ethiopia as a famine ‘of biblical proportions’. The images were harrowing: wailing women in rags, children with bloated stomachs, people scrabbling in the dirt for grains of wheat. Pop star and soon-to-be African aid impresario Bob Geldof, along with fellow musician Midge Ure, famously responded to Buerk’s reports by bringing together some of the day’s pop megastars to record the hit single ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’. They also initiated the Live Aid concerts of 1985 and set up a charity which went on to raise $144million over the following 20 years.

Unlike Buerk’s TV reports, Plaut’s documentary, which took a year to produce, has not impressed Geldof – he’s labelled it ‘a Ross/Brand moment in BBC standards’. Charities that were involved in the relief efforts back in 1984, including Oxfam, the Red Cross, Unicef, Christian Aid and Save the Children, have joined Geldof in writing an official complaint to the BBC Trust. The Band Aid Trust is also planning to report the BBC to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.

Geldof’s reaction to Plaut’s documentary has been intemperate. He said that ‘on the strength of one disgruntled [Ethiopian] soldier, the BBC has undermined the faith of ordinary people across the world in the effectiveness of giving to people in their hour of need. It is a disgrace.’ What is he suggesting, that Live Aid should be beyond interrogation, that it is simply a ‘good cause’ and that it is cruel to question and undermine it?

No way. Neither charities nor pop stars should be beyond scrutiny, and Aid For Arms in Ethiopia has presented an interesting, little-reported version of events – as did the Channel 4 documentary series The Hunger Business. In that series on emergency aid in Africa, which aired in 2000, a string of critics claimed that aid efforts mainly helped boost the coffers of the Mengistu regime and prolonged the war in Ethiopia. Geldof, the documentary claimed, had caused more suffering than he had alleviated.

Plaut’s documentary has shown that distribution of aid in complex emergencies is a tricky business and that good intentions can have unintended damaging effects. But he fails to point out that those damaging effects are in fact inevitable consequences of the charity campaigns and emotive media reporting themselves, which forego proper analysis of complex political situations in favour of simplistic, black-and-white narratives. In the case of Ethiopia and the morality tales spun around it, the Mengistu regime and the rebel forces have occupied the roles of the malevolent political players, the Ethiopian people are the helpless victims, and Western aid organisations are presented as the benevolent saviours.

When Geldof demanded of the British public ‘just give me your money’, and when he and his fellow pop stars tugged at our heart strings by singing ‘there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas’, the message was simple and clear: people are dying now and we can help them survive. What could possibly be wrong with that?

This kind of simple message, coupled with horrific images that prick people’s consciences, has set the scene for numerous emergency relief efforts since 1984, which continue, in Band Aid’s vein, to depict people in distant and poorer lands as desperate, helpless victims governed by leaders blinded by corruption or power – so therefore these places clearly need external intervention of some kind, preferably by non-corrupt, caring, whiter-than-white Westerners. This is the real harmful legacy of Band Aid and the emergency relief effort in Ethiopia.

Of course millions of Ethiopians did suffer terribly from the effects of the 1984 drought and they were caught in the middle of a military conflict between Mengistu’s Derg regime and rebels in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray. Yet the humanitarian disaster was not simply the result of internal lawlessness and a general inability of Ethiopians to govern their country and care for their people as they suffered from the drought. It is also important to remember that the Ethiopian civil war took place at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the US scrambled for strategic allies in the Third World, including in Ethiopia, giving rise to power struggles which fuelled tensions and caused immense hardship in Africa and elsewhere.

As in other conflicts where entangled historical events and powerful vested interests are at play, all of these complexities were obscured by the powerful television images of desperate Ethiopians. And since Band Aid, celebrity-led charity appeals have only helped to perpetuate an image of Africans and others in poor parts of the world as being in a permanent state of helplessness.

The problem of Live Aid was not where the money did or did not end up, but rather its creation of a new relationship between the West and the Third World, where we flatter ourselves into believing we are the saviours of poor, pathetic, corrupt Africa.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild asked Bob Geldof for some focking answers over the lack of developmment in a Ghanaian town. Elsewhere she felt that Africa was being treated as a feckless child by celebrity adopters. Brendan O’Neill attacked the rise of ‘celebrity colonialism’ and asked if we should make ‘Make Poverty History’ history. The new Amex card, launched by Bono, made Daniel Ben-Ami see red. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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