Live Aid 25 years on – time to change the record

Bob Geldof’s charitable venture ushered in an era in which Africa once more appeared as the white man’s burden.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

Sir Bob Geldof wants British people to pat themselves on the back today, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Live Aid concerts. ‘Well done us. Happy birthday, hip, hip hooray!’ he wrote in yesterday’s Sun.

For Geldof, the 1985 Live Aid appeal for victims of famine in Ethiopia and the 2005 Live 8 Global Call to Action on Poverty, which culminated in 10 concerts around the world, are proof that ‘we can change things if we put our mind to it’. In his Sun column, he praised the instinct to care for ‘those who have asked for help’.

Live Aid certainly helped change the character of international aid and it engendered a lot of goodwill from the British and others, who over the years have donated an estimated £150million to the charity that Geldof helped set up after the star-studded concerts in July 1985. But Africa, and other parts of the developing world, have paid a heavy price for it all. Because along with the emergency aid and the development projects, Live Aid and the many relief efforts it inspired have helped establish a new relationship between the West and the Third World: we flatter ourselves into believing that we are the saviours of helpless, feeble Africans, and Western nations, as donors, claim the right to dictate the terms of others’ development because they are seen as too incompetent to do it themselves. Did Africans really ask for this kind of ‘help’?

Back in 1984, Geldof was one of millions who watched, in horror, Michael Buerk’s BBC reports from the Horn of Africa. The upsetting images showed emaciated children too exhausted even to wave the flies off their faces, and men and women in rags scrabbling in the dirt for grains of wheat. Buerk famously described the situation in Ethiopia as a famine ‘of biblical proportions’.

Buerk’s reports may have been screened in full Technicolor, but they portrayed a starkly black-and-white view of what was, in reality, a very messy situation – and they played a significant part in entrenching the new relationship between ‘poor black Africans’ and ‘wealthy white saviours’. Here were suffering Ethiopians, victims of an oppressive regime and of natural disaster. It was up to us to save them through charity. Buerk and other journalists reporting from the Horn of Africa regarded the conflict there as a ‘side story’. As Buerk put it years later, a report about ‘victims of drought would raise more money than one about “yet another stupid African war”’ (1).

Geldof, lead singer of The Boomtown Rats – a band that had long since ceased to trouble the pop charts – decided he must Do Something, especially as the leaders of the two most important aid donor governments at the time – UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan – refused to assist the Communist Ethiopian regime. Geldof’s initial idea was to donate the profits of The Boomtown Rats’ next record to Oxfam, but, as Peter Gill recounts in his new book Famine & Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, ‘he knew that would be a pitiful sum’. So, along with fellow musician Midge Ure, Geldof brought together some of the day’s pop megastars to record the hit single ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’, which contained the nonsensical line ‘there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime’. They also initiated the Live Aid concerts of 1985 and set up the Band Aid Charitable Trust, which went on to raise millions over the following 25 years.

In 1985, during the Live Aid concert, Geldof was famously (if erroneously) credited with the demand ‘Give us the focking money!’ He saw aid as being beyond and above politics: the aim was to ‘feed Africa’. This perception of aid and charity as humanitarian and apolitical was not invented by the scraggly Irish singer. As Linda Polman explains in War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, the primacy of the duty to ease human suffering of whomever, wherever forms the basis of the ‘humanitarian principles’ of the International Committee of the Red Cross that were also entrenched in the Geneva Conventions.

But Live Aid marked the start of a new era of celebrity fundraising, where stars help appeal for donations from the public that are then spent and distributed by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private charities. And as we have seen over the past 25 years, where celebrities are drafted in to tug on our heart strings, the on-the-ground realities in places afflicted by war and poverty – from Darfur to Gaza – are more likely to become rendered as ‘side stories’ and reduced to a simplistic narrative: the people ‘over there’ are helpless and led by corrupt tyrants, we are rich and enlightened.

Twenty years after Live Aid, during the Live 8 appeal, Geldof wasn’t even asking for money from us, but just that we become aware that there is poverty in Africa (really?) and that we demand that the leaders gathering for the G8 summit in Edinburgh help eradicate it. At the time, Geldof and many other celebrities – from Bono to Brad Pitt – appeared in advertisements for the Make Poverty History campaign, which also focused on awareness-raising and on lobbying politicians to cancel Third World debt and fulfil the UN Millennium Development Goals. Anyone who wanted to support the campaign could don a white wristband imprinted with the words ‘Make Poverty History’.

The Live Aid crew were frustrated with politicians’ unwillingness to send over money and food to Africa, and, similarly, during the 2005 Make Poverty History Campaign and the Live 8 concerts, aid organisations joined forces with celebrities to make up for what they perceived to be an abandonment of humanitarian responsibilities amongst Western governments.

Only, there was never any real conflict between the political elite and the humanitarians and ‘radical protesters’ demonstrating outside the G8 summit. After all, then UK prime minister Tony Blair, who invited Geldof to join his Commission for Africa, had already appealed for the ‘international community’ to patch up the continent, and leading politicians from across the political spectrum expressed support for Live 8 and Make Poverty History. In fact, these campaigns were a godsend for political leaders struggling to connect with voters. Rubbing shoulders with rock stars, caring about poor people, and promising big changes for Africa became regarded as a sure-fire way to get some street-cred and win favour with the public.

In the Noughties, years after the Cold War scramble for strategic allies in the Third World, politicians’ attitude to aid has shifted. Now, everyone wants a stake in the relief industry. In his famous speech to the 2001 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair, echoing Michael Jackson, declared that: ‘The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world. But if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it.’ Not only have pop stars developed a propensity to get on to stage and sing their hearts out for the poor, but political leaders have turned Africa itself into a stage on which to display their humanitarian credentials. This is a new kind of scramble for Africa, where Western nations, rather than rushing over there to grab land and resources or to prop up regimes that can help further their military interests, are tripping over themselves to claim a piece of the scar to heal.

But what kind of development do campaigns like Live Aid and Live 8 have in mind? The aim of Live 8 was to convince G8 leaders to cancel Third World debt, promote ‘fair trade’ and meet the Millennium Development Goals – aims it shared with the Make Poverty History Campaign. Yet the Millennium Development Goals outline living conditions that no one in the West would accept. For instance, they include aims to cut by half the proportion of people living on less than one dollar a day and to cut by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. What about the other half? And can those who are scraping by on one dollar a day or have enough food but not much else, really be defined as having been lifted from poverty?

The UN secretary general at the time, Kofi Annan, apparently believed that the poor would be eternally grateful for such ‘life-changing’ policies. He told the crowd gathered for the Live 8 concert in London that: ‘This is really a United Nations. The whole world has come together in solidarity with the poor. On behalf of the poor, the voiceless and the weak I say thank you.’

Today, charity appeals and political campaigns are increasingly framed as being carried out ‘on behalf of’ others – whether it’s the poor in Africa, the unborn generations who will inherit the Earth or animals used for medical experimentation. This allows campaigners to assume a moral authority, to take it upon themselves to speak for millions of ‘voiceless’ and ‘disempowered’ people without ever asking what they themselves think. It was precisely this self-ascribed moral mission to do for others what they cannot do for themselves that informed Live Aid and that has become part and parcel of international aid appeals since then. Over 100 years after Kipling urged his countrymen to take up the White Man’s Burden, some apparently still believe in the moral mission to ‘Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease’.

Of course, NGO activists and pop crusaders are not colonial racists, but they seem to be pursuing an updated version of the mission to save Africa from itself and they continue to view it as a place that needs both to be mothered and tamed, much as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness presented the colonial mission over a hundred years ago – only today it’s through means such as caring charity appeals, anti-corruption efforts and ‘humanitarian intervention’. Today, Africa is both romanticised as ‘the cradle of humanity’ and seen as a continent filled with unruly savages – and Live Aid helped reinforce this image.

No doubt, celebrities have adopted a particularly patronising attitude to developing countries – whether it’s Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s attempt to save the world by raising a ‘rainbow family’ or Madonna’s mission of ‘Raising Malawi’, as her charity is called. As for Geldof, as if to prove his paternalistic attitude to Africa, in a 2005 television interview after Ethiopian police had shot dead 36 government opposition protesters, he said Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi should ‘grow up’ and ‘behave’. Yet while it is easy to point fingers at and ridicule do-gooding celebs, they cannot be held singularly responsible for the treatment of Africa as an unruly child that needs to be disciplined, guided and cared for by us. Instead, this is an attitude that guides international aid organisations as well as global leaders and human rights campaigners.

Three years ago Ethiopia, which follows the Julian calendar, celebrated the arrival of the third millennium by asking international artists, including Black Eyed Peas, to perform at a seven-hour New Year’s Eve concert in Addis Ababa. Sir Bob Geldof was not invited. It is no wonder if Ethiopians are sick of being regarded as synonymous with famine-victims and with being known for nothing else than ‘the land that Geldof saved’. Twenty-five years after Live Aid, it is indeed time to change the record.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild criticised the slanging match between Geldof and Make Poverty History. She also called Live Aid the white pop star’s burden and 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.

(1) See War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, by Linda Polman, Viking, 2010

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