Live Aid was an ambitious, remarkable project, but the explanations and solutions it offered were always going to be limited.
This week sees Live Aid’s 25th anniversary. It’s more than 25 years since that song “Do they know it’s Christmas?”‚Äîwhich by now should make decent people cringe‚Äîcame out and topped the charts for too many years.
Live Aid frontman Bob Geldof summed up his confusion when he said recently, “See, we can change things if we put our mind to it. At least for some people. At least for the most hurt and vulnerable in our world. We can do that. We proved it… Well done us.”
The problem is, Bob, that pesky problem of poverty keeps coming up again and again. Who are these lucky people that get our aid? And what exactly did we prove?
There are many things that Live Aid did. Feeding the world’s poor, as it might have wanted to do, wasn’t one of them. Clearly.
Live Aid was probably the biggest live TV broadcast of all time‚Äîwith 2 billion viewers in 60 countries‚Äîand raised over £150 million in aid, ostensibly for the famine in Ethiopia. Apparently much of it came rolling in when Geldof ranted on the BBC, “Give us your fucking money!”
It was the middle of the Thatcher/Reagan decade, and it showed that people actually did care. The problem was that it was ordinary people who were asked to solve a disaster they had done nothing to create.
And there was no real transparency about where the money was going. Earlier this year there were allegations made by a BBC journalist that much of the aid, including some raised by Live Aid, was spent buying weapons and being siphoned off into the bank accounts of leaders of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front in Ethiopia.
There were other problems with Live Aid too. One was trying to appeal to the morals of politicians, in the belief that if they only realised the misery of poverty, famine, war, debt etc., they would change their policies.
Geldof went to visit friends in Ethiopia 20 years after Live Aid and realised that the famine was even worse than it was in 1984, in which a million people are thought to have died.
Outraged, he called up Tony Blair and together they set up the Commission for Africa. Now, not many people have a direct line to Blair, and for that most people are grateful. But the idea that if Blair only knew of such problems in Africa, he would immediately work to address them, is comical.
In the end, the Commission for Africa was tasked with conducting a multi-year study of Africa’s problems and concluded, effectively, that a) Africa is poor; b) it needs to change; and c) the rich could help.
Promises of debt cancellation, the doubling of aid and reforming trade rules followed, but haven’t come to much, unfortunately. International aid is not structured in a way that encourages radical change.
According to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, in 2008 the total debt of all developing countries was still over £2.4 trillion. There is no doubt that reforms would make a massive difference, but the Live Aid approach was never going to make this happen.
But the main problem with Live Aid is that it wasn't about directing people’s anger at the system that caused the famine in Ethiopia. It wasn’t based on an understanding that the famine was a necessary consequence of the way the world market works.
To the credit of Live Aid, it moved on quickly from Band-Aid, the “charity supergroup” conceived in 1984, and it spawned Live 8. Although Live 8 had many of the same problems, it did turn the focus of attention onto the G8, even if this was only ever a temporary project.
This time it wasn’t just about tuning in or going to the concert. It joined forces with the Make Poverty History campaign, whatever its flaws, and over a quarter of a million people demonstrated against the G8 in Edinburgh in 2005.
The politics behind Live 8 had become more sophisticated because at least on one level the contradictions of the world‚Äîcoupled with such gigantic problems like endless wars and climate change‚Äîwere becoming glaringly obvious to more and more people.
Most people are generally sceptical of the bumbling promises to “do better” that come from the politicians. We know who is responsible for these crises.
If Live Aid and Live 8 helped that awareness then it had a positive, albeit immeasurable, impact. Regrettably, however, the explanations and solutions the Live Aid approach offers were always going to be limited.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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