Live Aid raised millions of pounds but, 30 years on, what is its legacy?
08:00 12 July 2015
These days, it’s easy to be cynical about celebrities lining up to sing a few lines for Africa while simultaneously promoting their careers. But it didn’t feel like that 30 years ago, writes Sheena Grant.
In 1985, Live Aid seemed to embody the purest of motives: a desire to help and a belief we really could make a difference. There was both a touching innocence and an electrifying energy about that July day three decades ago, when a global audience of 1.9 billion watched some of the biggest stars perform at simultaneous concerts in London and Philadelphia.
Whether you were lucky enough to be among the 72,000 at Wembley or, more likely, spent the day glued to your TV, you knew you were part of something big: a coming together of ordinary people and rock elite in response to famine in Ethiopia; a humanitarian catastrophe so enormous that BBC reporter Michael Buerk, whose powerful reports alerted us to the “closest thing to hell on Earth”.
Ask anyone over the age of about 40 about that sultry summer’s day and they will doubtless remember the Wembley concert’s defining moments: Queen, David Bowie and U2, Bob Geldof’s impassioned plea for people to donate more money, and the presence of our own fairytale princess, Diana. The next day, it was reported that up to £50 million had been raised. Estimates now suggest that around £150m was donated as a result of the concerts. But over the years something has happened to our memories. They’ve become tarnished by questions about how some of the money was spent, and by feelings that the concerts and the Band Aid song patronised Africa.
Andy Kershaw, who presented some of the BBC’s Live Aid coverage, says in his autobiography, No Off Switch: “This was another parade of the same old rock aristocracy in a concert for Africa, organised by someone who, while advertising his concern for, and sympathy with, the continent, didn’t see fit to celebrate or dignify the place by including on the Live Aid bill a single African performer.”
The doubts resurfaced last December, when Band Aid 30 was put together to record a re-jigged version of Do They Know It’s Christmas? and raise money for the fight against Ebola in west Africa.
Suffolk nurse and Ebola survivor Will Pooley was widely reported as describing the Band Aid 30 single as “cringeworthy”, saying he heard the song on his way into work in Sierra Leone, where he is treating Ebola sufferers at an isolation unit. “It’s Africa, not another planet,” Mr Pooley told Radio Times magazine. “Stuff about Do They Know It’s Christmas? Actually, people live normal lives here and do normal things. That sort of cultural ignorance is a bit cringeworthy. There’s a lyric about ‘death in every tear’; it’s just a bit much.”
Blur frontman Damon Albarn, who grew up near Colchester, said: “There are problems with our idea of charity, especially these things that suddenly balloon out of nothing and then create a media frenzy where some of that essential communication is lost and it starts to feel like it’s a process where, if you give money, you solve the problem,” he said.
Bob Geldof, who along with Midge Ure founded Band Aid and organised Live Aid, has batted away the criticism in typically pugnacious fashion, while the Band Aid Trust’s website points to its achievements over three decades in raising cash, awareness and getting governments to “step up to their responsibilities”. It adds: “The focus for expenditure has been mainly (but not exclusively) seven countries (Eritrea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Niger and Sudan) in Africa and five of these are now amongst the fastest-growing economies in the world.”
But what do those on the ground think of Live Aid’s achievements?
Farm Africa, which, like Live Aid, marks its 30th anniversary in 2015, works with communities in east Africa, pioneering techniques that boost harvests, reduce poverty, sustain natural resources and help end the need for aid.
Liz Dobson, head of programme funding, says it received some of the cash raised and has no doubt it made a real difference. “Live Aid brought the plight of communities affected by severe drought in eastern Africa to the world’s attention. Funds raised by Live Aid addressed not only short-term emergency response efforts but were also directed towards sustainable development programmes by organisations including Farm Africa that have had a long-term impact in helping build a prosperous rural Africa. With support from the Band Aid Charitable Trust, Farm Africa has been able to invest in reducing poverty permanently for smallholder farmers, including the poorest of the poor, by helping them to build sustainable livelihoods. By focusing on simple long-term solutions such as more effective farming techniques and improving farmers’ access to local markets, Farm Africa has used funding from Band Aid to help Africa’s families feed themselves, for the long term.
“Since 2000 Farm Africa has received grants worth over £550,000 from Band Aid that have supported our work with Ethiopian pastoralist communities to develop sustainable livelihoods; our programmes empowering Ethiopian women through goat breeding and other livelihoods, access to savings and credit and legal advice; and our work in South Sudan (then still part of Sudan) to support the recovery and development of rural communities.” She adds: “We remain true to our founding belief that small-scale agriculture is the key to ending hunger and poverty in rural Africa and that, with the right support, Africa can feed itself.”
Brian Boltwood is chairman of Haverhill-based charity Focus on Africa, which was founded in 2004 and works on health and education projects in Kenya. His father-in-law, Peter Plumb, was the driving force behind efforts to set up the charity but died just as it was getting off the ground. “Peter was definitely influenced by Live Aid,” says Brian. “He got me involved and asked me to go out with him to Kenya, which I did in 2000. I’ve been going regularly ever since. There’s a small band of trustees and we raise money to help orphans around Kisumu. At the moment we’re trying to build a clinic. Live Aid created such enormous interest and was so effective in raising money but nowadays sometimes I get feedback from people who wonder if it all got to the places it was needed. But so many people you speak to have not trodden on the ground we have trodden on, been there, smelled it and seen it. I have got up in the morning and seen a dead baby on a rubbish tip, killed by the mother because of poverty. It’s a different world and people in developed countries are often so blinkered. I have taken people to Kenya and, when they return home, they’re changed. “This is something we’ve got to get across to new generations. Unfortunately, a lot of them are quite selfish. We are so lucky to have everything we have.”
Jane and Alan Hutt, who left Rendlesham to set up a home for vulnerable young mothers and their babies in Kenya, believe the Live Aid legacy is mixed.
“It raised phenomenal awareness in the West for Ethiopian famine victims and met a desperate need at the time. In east Africa, its legacy is perhaps less positive than one might assume: it has contributed to a culture of expectation and free handouts among many of Africa’s vulnerable people,” say the couple. “Such organisations also facilitate Western impressions of Africa as a continent characterised by extreme poverty and deadly disease.
“Band Aid’s response to crisis and the immediate difference that it makes is undeniable: thousands of lives were saved and, on the ground, that is what counts. In the long term, Africa needs empowerment to stand on its own: we should walk with her, and not assume that she must be carried.”