Band Aid & Live Aid : Responding to The Critics

Live Aid
Live Aid
Nov 19, 2014 · 31 min read

Band Aid was a supergroup featuring mainly British and Irish musicians and recording artists. It was convened in 1984 by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money for humanitarian aid in Ethiopia by releasing the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” on 25 November 1984. The song was recorded in London, and was released in the UK four days later. The single surpassed the hopes of the producers to become the #1 song at Christmas. By 2014, Band Aid and Live Aid had raised in excess of $193 million.

Live Aid was a multi-venue rock music concert held on July 13, 1985. The event was organised by Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats) and Midge Ure (Ultravox) in order to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. Billed as the ‘global jukebox’, the main sites for the event were Wembley Stadium, London (attended by 72,000 people) and JFK Stadium, Philadelphia (attended by about 90,000 people), with some acts performing at other venues such as Sydney and Moscow. It was one of the largest-scale satellite link-ups and television broadcasts of all time: an estimated 2 billion viewers, across 150 countries, watched the live broadcast.

Live Aid is a cultural, musical and historical treasure trove of performances by some of the greatest and most influential rock/pop musicians in history.

It is also arguably the single biggest charity and cultural change event in terms of both scale and impact. In an era before the internet and mobile phones, it was a major technical achievement of its time with an estimated 2 billion viewers, across 150 countries, watching the live broadcasts from Wembley and JFK Stadiums.

The original Band Aid record, and the ensuing Live Aid concerts, were indeed only a ‘band aid’ — the point of the event was to raise emergency relief money, but also to raise awareness and put the issue of extreme poverty on the political agenda.

Bearing in mind that these kinds of immense social changes can take decades (consider the Civil Rights movement in the US), it is safe to say that Band Aid/Live Aid sowed some important seeds of change.

Yet both Live Aid and the recording that gave rise to it six months before, Band Aid, have had a lot of criticism over the years. Is it all justified?

This article has been written to challenge some of the oft-repeated arguments made about Band Aid and Live Aid, as the 30th anniversary of both these cultural touchstones remanifests.

The ‘Band Aid/Live Aid Didn’t Solve Poverty’ Strawman

There has been a reinvention of Band Aid/Live Aid in popular mythology as something that was intended or going to ‘save Africa’ and end extreme poverty.

Here’s the thing - it wasn’t meant to. The clue is in the name: BAND AID.

Band Aid and Live Aid were initiated in response to a BBC news report which beamed images from an appalling famine in Ethiopia into lounge rooms in October 1984. Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and other frontline aid agencies and workers were there, but on the ground, there were not enough resources to help all those in need. An estimated eight million lives were at risk, and a million people died. Meanwhile the EEC was letting stockpiles of food go to waste.

Here is the news report which millions, including Bob Geldof, saw:

Michael Buerk’s BBC report of 23 Oct 1984 that sparked Band Aid (Nov 1984) and Live Aid (Jul 1985)

Band Aid was an emergency effort offering humanitarian support in the face of a tragedy caused by a complex set of geo-political factors.

How could Band Aid/Live Aid have possibly been expected to solve entrenched internal and external problems for a whole country - or continent - which persist to this day? Unfair trade rules and a rigged economic playing field. Odious debt. Colonial legacies. Corruption in positions of power, in all countries.

Here’s a classic example of this strawman:

…while it may be comforting to believe that Live Aid has significantly helped those suffering in Africa…it is dangerous because it ignores the real causes of world hunger. To perpetuate the myth that charity can solve that problem obscures the urgent need for political action…

Yet the initiator of Band Aid/Live Aid already knew this:

There is always a role for humanitarian aid - the original purpose of Band Aid and Live Aid - articulated here by Brian Barder, the British Ambassador to Ethiopia at the time of the famine:

Those who condemn all humanitarian emergency aid to save innocent, desperately poor people from death by starvation, on the crazy grounds that it doesn’t instantly eradicate poverty in the country to which it’s given, should be ashamed of themselves. Every contribution given to Ethiopian famine relief in the 1980s saved someone’s life, or helped to do so. Without it, perhaps 6 or 7 million people, including women and children, would have died but were saved. To confuse humanitarian emergency aid, to relieve the effects of a terrible famine, with development aid designed to raise living standards and gradually eradicate poverty in the medium and long terms is simply illiterate. And to try to discourage others from contributing to such good causes in the future by making wild and unsupported allegations about corruption and diversion is nothing short of wicked.

This same ‘you rattled the cage, why can’t you solve everything?’ ridiculousness was put to Russell Brand during his interview with Jeremy Paxman, which Brand eloquently rebutted with:

Jeremy, darling, don’t ask me to sit here in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.

Given the sum total of the greatest thinkers and do-ers in the world have yet to successfully address the challenges that Band Aid/Live Aid has been accused of not solving, or have yet to get their ideas traction/to a tipping point, it’s hardly a fair accusation.

The point of both Geldof and Brand’s efforts to seek the media spotlight is to create a megaphone through which millions of voices can be meshed and directed at decision makers, and to mobilise people precisely to bring about the deep systemic change that Band Aid/Live Aid is accused of not delivering.

The kind of people who can assemble huge crowds into one spot will be the major influences on mass culture in the next decade.

- Jim Morrison

How can people STILL not get this, especially in this age of social media?

Or are they just annoyed that a prickly Irishman was able to galvanise what they have not?

‘Aid Doesn’t Work’

The name ‘Band Aid’ itself conveys this understanding. Aid can’t — and isn’t intended to — ‘fix’ intractable economic, social and political problems in and of itself.

A distinction also needs to be made between humanitarian aid and development aid:

Humanitarian aid is material or logistical assistance provided for humanitarian purposes, typically in response to humanitarian crises including natural disaster and man-made disaster. The primary objective of humanitarian aid is to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity. It may therefore be distinguished from development aid, which seeks to address the underlying socioeconomic factors which may have led to a crisis or emergency.

The wrong kind of aid can indeed be damaging — tied aid, aid siphoned off by corrupt individuals in all kinds of positions of power, aid which is decided on largely by, and for the benefit of, the donors.

Informed commentators are right to criticise much of what has constituted ‘aid’, particularly where it is imposed by Western banks and governments without the involvement or voice of the recipients.

Dambisa Moyo, ex-World Bank and Goldman Sachs economist and author of Dead Aid, claims that aid is making the poor poorer, that it fuels corruption, discourages enterprise, creates dependence and hinders economic growth. It undermines democracy and even foments civil war (in this case, she is referring to development aid, not emergency humanitarian aid).

In his article ‘The Case for Real Aid’, international development policy analyst and author of The Trouble with Aid, Jonathan Glennie, supports Moyo’s questioning of development aid, but does not support her proposed approach:

Despite the many flaws in her book, Moyo’s success is a good thing. We need to debate aid. I wrote my book because I was frustrated by the lack of intellectual rigour behind calls for huge aid increases to Africa. The aid community needs to publicly recognize the flaws in aid and the harm it can sometimes do. And then it needs to defend the good things about aid.

I am not concerned about Moyo critiquing aid; she is right to. What concerns me is the certainty with which she states what African countries need to do to develop…it is galling to see in this case, precisely because she utters with such certainty prescriptions that have been shown so utterly to have failed.

Moyo’s solution is to get Africa off its aid addiction, and to attract foreign direct investment to Africa and expand the free market.

While perpetual aid dependency is not desirable for any community, some kinds of aid (that benefits recipients, as defined by them, not the donor) could be delivered in a much more effective way.

However over the last thirty years, we’ve all seen what happens in so-called ‘free’ markets. Here’s the kind of free market behaviour that Moyo’s former employer, Goldman Sachs (characterised by Rolling Stone investigative reporter Matt Taibbi as the ‘vampire squid’ in the wake of the global financial crisis), engages in:

In 2006, financial speculators like Goldman’s pulled out of the collapsing US real estate market, and they were looking for somewhere else to make their stash of cash swell. They started to buy massive amounts of derivatives based on food: they reckoned that food prices would stay steady or rise while the rest of the economy tanked. Suddenly, the world’s frightened investors stampeded onto this ground and decided to buy, buy, buy.

So while the supply and demand of food stayed pretty much the same, the supply and demand for contracts based on food massively rose – which meant the all-rolled-into-one price for food on people’s plates massively rose. The starvation began.

The food price was now being set by speculation, rather than by real food. The hedge fund manager Michael Masters estimated that even on the regulated exchanges in the US – which take up a small part of the business – 64 percent of all wheat contracts were held by speculators with no interest whatever in real wheat. They owned it solely to inflate the price and sell it on. Even George Soros said this was “just like secretly hoarding food during a hunger crisis in order to make profits from increasing prices.” The bubble only burst in March 2008 when the situation got so bad in the US that the speculators had to slash their spending to cover their losses back home.

When I asked them to comment on the charge of causing mass hunger, Merrill Lynch’s spokesman said: “Huh. I didn’t know about that.” He later emailed to say: “I am going to decline comment.” Deutsche Bank also refused to comment. Goldman Sachs were a little more detailed in their response: they said “serious analyses… have concluded index funds did not cause a bubble in commodity futures prices”, offering as evidence a single statement by the OECD.

How do we know this is wrong? As Professor Ghosh points out, some vital crops are not traded on the futures markets, including millet, cassava, and potatoes. Their price rose a little during this period – but only a fraction as much as the ones affected by speculation. Her research shows this speculation was “the main cause” of the rise.

So it has come to this. The world’s wealthiest speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of hundreds of millions of innocent people. They gambled on increasing starvation, and won. This is what happens when you follow the claim that unregulated markets know best to the end of the line. What does it say about our political and economic system that we can so casually inflict such misery, and barely even notice?

Perhaps we should be paying more attention to the impact of ‘free markets’ as well as identified downsides of types of aid?

Inappropriate aid also reinforces a story that aid recipients are incapable and in need of external assistance for their ‘unfortunate’ circumstances, rather than investigating the deeper causes:

The aid project is failing because it misses the point about poverty. It assumes that poverty is a natural phenomenon, disconnected from the rich world, and that poor people and countries just need a little bit of charity to help them out. People are smarter than that. They know that poverty is a feature of the global economic system that it is very often caused by people, including some of the people who run or profit from the aid agenda. People have become increasingly aware — particularly since the 2008 crash — that poverty is created by rules that rig the economy in the interests of the rich.

Right now, developing countries lose as much as $900bn each year to tax evasion by multinational companies through trade mispricing, and almost the same sum again through transfer pricing. They lose another $600bn each year in debt service to mostly first world banks. These losses alone amount to nearly 20 times more than the total flow of aid, which is a paltry $135bnand that’s not counting land grabs and other forms of resource theft.

All of this makes it clear that poverty is not a natural condition. It is a state of plunder. It is delusional to believe that charity and aid are meaningful solutions to this kind of problem.

Some people in the NGO community know this all too well, and they are calling for genuine political change: The democratisation of the World Bank and the IMF, fairer trade rules, and an end to tax evasion…releasing developing countries from the siphons of rich countries and their corporations.

The pillaging of communities by power structures is is happening in many places, not just in developing countries, such as the privatisation of public services in the UK - though this is dwarfed by the scale of pillaging from the African continent.

‘The Money Was Didn’t Get Where It Was Supposed To Go’

When Band Aid first happened, Geldof and Ure took advice from George Harrison’s experience with the Concert for Bangladesh — in a recent interview, Midge Ure stated:

The Concert (for Bangladesh). . .all of the money didn’t get where it was meant to go. It was spent on overheads and ad men. So (Harrison’s advice to Geldof) was, “Get yourselves good accountants.” We have the same accountants today who (ensure) we don’t spent a penny on anything. We’ve had no office, no secretaries. We begged, borrowed, and stole telephone lines, space, whatever we could.

In January 1985, the Band Aid Charitable Trust was established, and continues to both operate and publish audited accounts of its activities:

Screen grab from

Here is an email message from John Kennedy, then a trustee of the Band Aid Trust, 29 July 2010, to fans of the LIVE AID Facebook page:

Even now we get regular requests for funding from very deserving activities and whilst we have spent an awful lot of money over the years there are always great causes for any additional monies raised.

And an email from BDO (Band Aid Trust accountants)’s Joe Cannon, Senior Tax Manager / Corporate International Tax Services, 5 July 2010:

The Band Aid Trust was registered as a British Charity in January 1985.

By July 1985, over $6 million had been spent on buying and transporting food, shelter, medical supplies, water equipment and other essential items to famine victims in Ethiopia and Sudan.

The Live Aid concerts on 13th July 1985 raised over $80 million world-wide, which was spent on programmes designed to address some of the underlying causes of hunger in the famine.

In total, Band Aid has raised in excess of $180 million.

In recent years the Charity has supported projects designed to make a lasting difference to the lives of people in and around Ethiopia. This includes:

- the construction of schools, hospitals, boreholes, wells, rain-water harvesting facilities and latrines

- food security, hygiene, sanitation, livelihood diversification and income generating activities

- training in-country for teachers, doctors and nurses

- assistance for those living with HIV/AIDS

- emergency interventions such as nutrition screening programmes

- seed and animal distribution

- procurement of emergency food aid to treat severely malnourished children and adults

The Band Aid Charitable Trust report for 2012 states:

Since 1985 funds have been provided on an ongoing basis for long term development projects and emergency aid. The majority of funds originally raised were spent on projects in Ethiopia and Sudan, where the threat of famine was at its worst. Over the years, Band Aid has continued to support projects that benefit the poorest and most vulnerable in Africa.

The trustees favour long term projects where a contribution from Band Aid will make a lasting difference to the lives of the beneficiaries. Where possible, projects funded include the participation of the local communities so that activities can be tailored to address specific needs and to ensure and that the benefits arising continue long after implementation has ceased. The trustees also believe that projects funded should have the potential for wider impact, for example, through the spread of an approach, technology or practice, and through influencing other persons, agencies and governments.

During the year, none of the trustees (or any person connected to them) received any remuneration or reimbursed expenses (2011 — none).

Or as Geldof more colourfully put it in a letter (since removed from the internet) to documentary film maker Chris Atkins:

I have never received or asked for remuneration or expenses for any Band Aid activity over 25 years. To be clear, no trustee, including myself, has ever received or asked for any remuneration for any of their work. They have also never asked for a single penny in expenses including flights, professional fees, phone bills or biscuits. So f*ck off.

‘The Money Was Used To Buy Arms’

In March 2010, the BBC’s World Service’s Assignment said cash raised by charities to help Ethiopia had been diverted by rebels, claiming millions of pounds raised by Band Aid was used to buy arms.

In November 2010, following a complaint lodged by Band Aid, the BBC apologised for the reports, admitting that Assignment gave the impression that Band Aid and Live Aid money had been diverted despite no evidence to back that up. It apologised for further TV, radio and online reports which actually stated that Band Aid money had paid for arms.

Brian Barder, British ambassador to Ethiopia at the time of the 1983–86 famine, clarified the issue on his website:

A BBC World Service documentary programme broadcast in early March 2010, and the advance publicity for it, gave the impression that a huge proportion of the famine relief aid given by the international community to Ethiopia in the 1980s was diverted from starving people to buy arms and ammunition for use in the civil war then raging in northern parts of the country. The specific allegations made by the BBC about the diversion of aid related only to the tiny proportion that was supplied by some NGOs to rebel-held areas, a distinct and very small part of the total relief effort in Ethiopia at the time. The incorrect inference has been drawn that a substantial part of the total aid to Ethiopia, including the much larger sums provided to the government-ruled parts of Ethiopia, were diverted for military use, including the aid raised and managed by Band Aid. While the programme did not make this claim explicitly (just as well, since it would certainly have been exposed as false), either deliberately or negligently the BBC has allowed, and to some extent encouraged, this misunderstanding of its findings, and has failed to point out that its allegations related to a quite separate, and very small, part of the aid. As a result, there is now a widely held and completely false perception that a substantial proportion of the aid given to Ethiopia in the 1980s was diverted for military use. This has potentially disastrous implications for public attitudes to future emergency relief appeals, and to development aid generally.

Barder also said the BBC’s apology was far from adequate and responded to comments on his column which continued to question where Band Aid relief had gone:

It is simply not true that the emergency famine relief aid to Ethiopia was “channeled … through Mengistu’s government in Addis” and absolutely false that any of it was diverted by the then Ethiopian government for uses other than those intended. Hardly any of it was in the form of money; it was almost entirely aid in kind: grain and other food, medicines and medical supplies, tents and hospital equipment, trucks and aircraft to transport it, and hundreds of young relief workers from all over the world — nutritionists, feeding centre distribution workers, doctors and nurses, drivers and pilots and baggage handlers, and many more. All this was under the control of NGOs such as Band Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children (and dozens more), government aid personnel, and above all representatives of all the major UN specialised agencies, including aid monitors working under the close supervision of the UN Assistant Secretary-General, Kurt Jansson, a highly experienced and efficient Finnish international public servant and his staff. It was closely monitored from its arrival at the ports or airports to the time it was distributed to starving or sick famine victims. The RAF physically collected huge quantities of it from the ports and flew it to the famine areas to be dropped to starving people or delivered to small dangerous landing-strips and unloaded for them. Any diversion would have been spotted instantly, reported and stopped.

Barder’s son also gave an eyewitness account of his time in Ethiopia during the famine relief effort.

There were others who critiqued Geldof at this time, including that he wanted to continue to work with the Ethiopian regime to supply relief:

…the relief world still remains badly divided over Live Aid’s decision to help fund the activities of international relief agencies, notably the Irish NGO Concern, in providing assistance to the victims not just of the famine — itself as much a man-made, or, more precisely, Ethiopian government-made, disaster as a natural one, despite the way reporters like Michael Buerk presented it at the time — but of the massive resettlement program undertaken by Ethiopia’s Stalinist tyrants, both as refugees were transported south from the conflict and famine zones and in the camps into which they were forced after their deportation.

The bitter conflict between [aid agency] Concern, which believed it was right to remain, and MSF [Medicins Sans Frontieres], which insisted that the time had come for the relief NGOs to stop collaborating with the regime and pull out, thus no longer providing the dictatorship with humanitarian cover, is a matter of historical fact. Concern’s view was then, and remains now, that the moral duty of relief groups must always (or virtually always) be to remain, no matter how terrible the regime is. They make this argument on the grounds that NGOs can do much to alleviate suffering if they stay, but little to influence political outcomes if they go.

MSF argued was that had the relief agencies withdrawn en masse and denounced publicly and collectively what the dictatorship was doing, the major donors to Ethiopia, above all the United States and the European Union, which certainly had the power to act, might have been mobilized to do something to halt the deportations and the forced resettlement.

There are also arguments that western aid, including Band Aid/Live aid funds, had led to the deaths of many:

Hard on the heels of the Buerk report, the Dergue determined that 600,000 people would have to be moved to southwestern Ethiopia, where the government was in full control. The justification? The terrible famine whose images were now ubiquitous in the western media.

This is not to say that the Ethiopian famine was not real. It was all too real. The question, rather, is one of balancing the positive accomplishments of aid programmes against the effects of that work being exploited by government or rebel authorities. Relief agencies routinely operate in places where governments or insurgents kill their own people. Yet it is one thing to accept that NGOs can never control the environment in which they operate and quite another to participate in a great crime like the resettlement, even if the purpose of that participation is to try to mitigate its effects. The truth is that the Dergue’s resettlement policy — of moving 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others — was at least in part a military campaign, masquerading as a humanitarian effort. And it was assisted by western aid money.

These points raise some vexed questions.

Can the media be in any way considered at fault for triggering this resettlement by reporting the the famine? Would the outcome have been different for people there had it not been reported?

Should aid agencies have to make a choice whether to abandon people in need, or stay to alleviate suffering in situations where an odious regime is calling the shots?

Perhaps the finger of blame should be pointed not at investigative journalism or humanitarian aid organisations, but the very oppressive regimes that created the situation?

Patronising Westerners As Saviours

Important points about the dangers of ‘white saviour’ complex, where a white protagonist ‘rescues’ people of colour from their plight, and ‘the Western agenda’ were raised by Amit Singh, a graduate of the London School of Economics, in the New Internationalist:

Developing states are presented in negative terms in the media and, at times, by NGOs themselves. They are presented as backward, inferior and in need of ‘rescuing’. The assumption is that the developing world needs to be pulled into modernity…development often benefits the rich one per cent rather than the poor it is supposed to be helping. NGOs may become complicit, facilitating the neoliberal agenda that is promoted by Western states.

India is often lauded for its ‘development’, but huge increases in GDP are misleading. They don’t tell the true story – of growing inequality and social unrest in a country that is servicing the capitalist West. The rich are getting richer, but nobody else is.

Through development, we are pushing our own agenda on the rest of the world, without true consultation of what is required. Development is becoming a dangerous and loaded term, with increasingly neocolonial tendencies. Those who work in the field must be careful not to push their own ideas and prejudices onto other people, and must realize that the Western way isn’t always the right way.

The right of people to self-determination, and who holds and exercises power in decisions relating to aid, are critical questions of justice.

At the same time, the legacy of colonialism (physical occupation) and necolonialism (occupation largely via economic means) by the West has influenced public discourse to the extent that even the best-intentioned efforts can now only ever be seen as the ‘benevolent donor-infantilised recipient’ dynamic, driven by the ‘white saviour complex’ and/or ‘white guilt’ (a term which ironically suggests that the only people who are aid donors/Western are white).

The protagonists of Band Aid have been accused of ignorance, of ‘white saviourism’, of imposing their ways on a different culture. But are these criticisms reflecting of the perspective of those being accused, or those doing the accusing? Geldof in a 2005 interview:

We work on the basis of individualism, our society. The Africans work on a collective society, which is why we’ve always had this disconnect. We’ve imposed ideas on them coming from an idea of individuals that can’t possibly work. And we’ve never listened or looked at the way they actually achieved their society. But the paradox of individualism, without being too boring, is that it can only work when it works in a collective manner for the common good. That’s how individualism works, and that’s how, when you ask what can the individual do, working in a collective manner towards the common good, you will succeed in changing things.

And there is a curious disconnect in the criticism levelled at Band Aid/Live Aid, especially in relation to humanitarian aid.

Tsunami in the Pacific. International response.

Hurricane in Haiti. International response.

Tsunami in Japan. International response.

Not a word there about anyone being anyone else’s ‘saviours’.

Why the discrimination?

There was a humanitarian tragedy in Ethiopia in 1984.

Human beings responded.

Under-representation of African/African American Artists

Geldof and Ure were criticised by many, including one of the BBC presenters covering Live Aid, Andy Kershaw, in his autobiography No Off Switch:

…it became clear that 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.

Responding to concerns that Live Aid was a concert for Africa, yet the overwhelming majority of performers were white, co-organiser Midge Ure said:

After the concert, we were lambasted for not having enough black artists on the bill. It became this anti-colonial diatribe, ‘You whites, telling us poor black guys what to do’. It was unfair but it happened.

We couldn’t get any black superstar to perform at either concert and it wasn’t for lack of trying. We asked Prince, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, who were all otherwise engaged or not interested in doing it.

The point was to draw the biggest audience possible, with ‘known’ names, targeting primarily Western audiences, to maximise impact. The television audience was an estimated 2 billion people, about a third of the globe’s population at that time. They tuned in because of legendary names and classic bands as well as the rising stars of the time.

Should there have been African artists involved? Maybe — it depends on the objective. Geldof was (and is) shrewd, and pragmatic enough to know that his objective — securing media and audience interest - meant pulling in big international names, not little-known national or local acts, of any colour, no matter how awesome they were.

Lyrical Revisionism

‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ 1984 original

There are those who say the lyrics of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ are inappropriate because:

- it misrepresents ‘Africa’ as an homogenous entity

The Band Aid single was never about an entire continent, which is hugely diverse, and where things do grow and rain and rivers do, of course, flow.

It was penned about a specific place, at a specific time — in the days following the BBC’s report about an appalling famine in Ethiopia.

Could the lyrics have been more accurate? Yes. The song could have referenced the specific place, rather than Africa — though how many people could have placed Ethiopia on a map? And maybe three syllables (‘Af-ri-ca’) simply worked better than Ethiopia’s five in a song? Midge Ure gave this insight in a recent interview:

Bob turned up at my place with a guitar that looked as though he’d found it in a dump. It had hardly any strings on it. He started singing me this thing — it was obvious he was making it up as he went along. He sounded like a demented Bob Dylan. There was no melody, no structure and every time he sang it, it sounded different. He presented me the idea for the lyrics, the ‘It’s Christmastime, there’s no need to be afraid.’ My main contribution was changing ‘And there won’t be snow in Ethiopia this Christmas,’ which doesn’t scan in anybody’s book. We changed that to ‘Africa’…

A song is not an academic tract or peer-reviewed report. By nature it must be short, memorable and written to evoke a response. Are we going to retrospectively strip out all inaccuracies and ambiguities from the back catalogue of popular music?

- it divorces the situation from its political context

It does. There was a drought in Ethiopia at the time, and people may have perceived that the famine was a natural disaster, however there were bigger contributing factors (such as civil war) that gave rise to what was largely a man-made tragedy. The song could have been about the political context in which the famine occurred. But the call to action — which was the point of the whole exercise — may well have been lost in the detail of a more complex message:

…the famine was the product of three elements, only one of which could be described as natural — a two-year drought across the Sahel sub-region. The other two factors were entirely man-made. The first was the dislocation imposed by the wars waged by the government in Addis Ababa against both Eritrean guerrillas and the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front. The second and more serious was the forced agricultural collectivisation policy ruthlessly pursued by Mengistu Haile Mariam and his colleagues in the Dergue (committee), who had overthrown Haile Selassie in 1974 (and officially adopted communism as their creed in 1984). This collectivisation was every bit the equal in its radicalism of the policies Stalin pursued in Ukraine in the 1930s, where, as in Ethiopia, the result was inevitable: famine.

Is it the role of a pop song to capture all of this? Or is it the role of a pop song to evoke a response to a simple, clear message — ‘there are people suffering, we can help’.

One pithy comment fired back at this suggestion sums it up:

‘Instead of more tired stereotypes of poor Africans, celebrities could highlight the geo-political problems…’


- it is imperialist and doesn’t acknowledge that many Africans are not Christian and don’t know or care if it’s Christmas

The song was written to mobilise Western audiences, who by and large do recognise Christmas, into looking beyond their own world.

It was also written about Ethiopia, where there is, in fact, a large Christian population (2/3 of the population, according to the 2007 census), though Christmas is celebrated on a different day, as a different calendar is used.

- the line ‘well tonight thank God its them instead of you’ is appalling

The entire intent of that line was to provoke and get under people’s skin and disrupt them out of their comfort zone, and it worked. But 30 years later, people still don’t seem to grasp that this is precisely why it was included.

Ironically, Bono did not want to sing the lyric. Here’s the conversation that happened and why Geldof insisted on that controversial line:

Bono and Geldof on ‘that’ line from ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’

Bono: “Are you sure you want to do that? You want to say that?!?”

Geldof: “Yes, I DO want to say that.”

Bono: “There’s no way. I’m not singing it. ‘Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you’? I can’t sing it. I don’t…I just can’t sing that line.”

Geldof: “You have to. Because that’s the one that’s going to hurt the most. Can you imagine your family living through this? Can you imagine it?! That’s what this is about. We’re having Christmas — it’s fantastic. It’s cosy, it’s warm, we’re giving each other this stuff. Outside that cosy window, there’s a completely different REAL WORLD.

And when he sang it, he nailed exactly that frustration and anger in me.”

Rich Celebrity Hypocrites

‘They should donate all their personal wealth and stop asking working people to donate money.’

‘They are only in it for themselves and the publicity’.

The problems that contributed to the tragedy Band Aid/Live Aid raised awareness of are deep, systemic problems.

When Geldof initiated Band Aid, within weeks he had people asking him, ‘so I buy the record or donate money, that keeps them alive for a week – then what?’

He, and others including Midge Ure and Bono, embarked on a learning curve about development politics, debt, economics and aid – as did everybody who was following their activities.

Anyone who has done a cursory study about the levels of debt being carried by the Global South will know that if any individual celebrity donated all their personal wealth, it would cover the interest on the debt for a month.

And whether Geldof, Ure, Bono or any other celebrity is worth $15 million or $150 million is irrelevant. Not even $15 billion would address the systemic flaws that need addressing — though directing the outrage to illegitimate debt not just in the Global South, but in all countries, and stopping tax avoidance by corporations and wealthy citizens might:

Think tank Global Financial Integrity estimates that $4.7 trillion was siphoned out of developing countries during 2002–11, $760 billion in 2011 alone. This is five or six times the sum total of all official development assistance flowing into these countries during the same periods. These numbers have been increasing at 8.6% a year…Christian Aid calculates that governments of developing countries have lost tax revenues of about $160bn annually – about $2.5 trillion for the 2000–2015 millennium development goals (MDG) period.

Tax abuse is also practised by wealthy citizens of developing countries. Boston Consulting Group estimates that 33% of all private financial wealth owned by people in Africa and the Middle East and 26% of such wealth owned by Latin Americans – $2.6 trillion in total – is kept abroad.

There is no getting away from the fact that there is a contradiction inherent in people who are wealthy campaigning for debt relief, which is also why Russell Brand has been attacked over his activism in relation to addressing inequality and poverty in the UK. But should such people be denied a voice because of their wealth?

Geldof went to Africa against his will after Band Aid, not wanting to ‘trudge through people’s misery’ as he put it. But the media had said to him ‘if you don’t go, we can’t get the story up. If you go, we can get this in the papers and get at the politicians’.

By his own admission, Geldof was close to being broke at the time of Band/Live Aid. What was left of his music career was derailed by carrying the responsibility for it the years following.

Insinuations that Geldof (or anyone else) somehow inappropriately benefitted from Band Aid/Live Aid overlook:

And for all the vitriol directed at it, the latest incarnation of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was at the request of the United Nations. A month before it was recorded, it wasn’t on the cards, according to Midge Ure. Geldof has even said he is sick of Band Aid, but both know the power of media and celebrity — as Ure notes:

I presume governments are incredibly aware of what’s going on. But maybe they’re just slow, lumbering machines. Whereas, you get people in the entertainment industry to start rattling cages and it’s media-worthy. It embarrasses politicians to think that masses of people can be moved into action because of a bunch of pop stars.

Attention is a currency, and like it or not, celebrities in our era have that currency to spend. They also have a public platform, and choose to use it when they could choose not to, especially given the abuse directed at them.

Shooting the messenger is a lazy response to the efforts of people who have the media spotlight, and are prepared to use it in calling for both immediate relief and systemic change to benefit others.

Perhaps the last word on this should go to a frontline emergency aid worker.

The day after Band Aid’s 30th anniversary, this message was posted on Geldof’s Facebook page by Peter Simpson, an aid worker currently in Sierra Leone, thanking those who participated in Band Aid 30 for ‘raising the profile of the utter devastation and human suffering going on here in West Africa’:

I am in Sierra Leone working with the “Ebola Warriors” (Ambulance Crews) in the Freetown the Capital City. We need help to beat Ebola, we need money and we need trained people (Doctors, Nurses, Ambulance Paramedics, EMT’s, Lab technicians). We can beat Ebola if we had the man power and resources to get ahead of this horrific virus. I plea to the world please help the people of West Africa they are being slaughtered by this disease in the thousands far more than is reported on the news. Ebola can be beaten, Ebola must be beaten. Thank you once again from the bottom of my broken heart.

‘Charity Begins At Home’

It is natural to want to ‘look after one’s own’ first, especially where there are hardships at home.

What Band Aid/Live Aid did was invite us to expand that definition of who we think of as part of our ‘own’, and how we think of ‘home’.

The austerity measures rolled out in many western countries have seriously impacted on many people, and there have been lives lost as a result of hunger and cold, things we thought we’d left behind in Dickensian times.

Have a look at the material on tax avoidance and the role of banks and corporations in the section above. Still think there’s not enough to go around, both for those struggling at home and for those suffering extreme poverty? The ‘divide and conquer’ strategy plays groups off against each other by creating a sense of artificial scarcity and an ‘either-or’ situation. In doing so, it shifts the focus away from the forces doing the dividing and conquering.

And by the way, that interpretation of the phrase is not the original meaning:

When people say ‘Charity begins at home’ they very often mean ‘You should look after your own kids, family and own circle first and then be kind to people’ which is not the original meaning of the proverb. The original meaning is that charity begins in the home — that is to say kids learn charity in the home.

The ‘[Insert Disparaging Comment About Bob Geldof’s Hair/Swearing/Personal Life]’ Ad Hominem Attack

Really? How relevant are they to this debate?

Play the ball and not the man.

As for his colourful language, who could blame him? He’s fought against inertia and as a result has endured the slings and arrows of outrageous poison pens for his efforts spanning over thirty years to get governments to act. You’d be f*cked off too!

The purpose of the Band Aid single and the Live Aid concerts was not to try to convey the complexities that underpinned the human tragedy, and it was never going to be a panacea for one Ethiopian famine or for the challenges of an entire continent. As one commentator observed:

It was the 80's and people didn’t know as much as they do now about the world. Back then we were told Russians were going to nuke the country at any moment, and that privatising all your services and utilities was a good thing for everyone.

In the early 1980s, very few people had seen the kinds of images that were coming from Ethiopia. We’ve become much more savvy about aid and its political context, and what kind of aid is ineffective, harmful or disempowering. But we’ve also become a lot more cynical about altruism.

It is easy for today’s critics, looking back at 1984/85 with 2014/15 eyes, to attack yesterday’s innocence — but that innocence is also the reason so many people remember Band Aid/Live Aid with great nostalgia and affection as seminal moments in music and cultural history.

It’s purpose, in an era before the internet, was to create a massive signal interruption - arresting attention, getting people to ask questions and building political pressure in order to put those more complex issues on the international political agenda.

In this, it succeeded.

Because we’re all still talking and arguing about it thirty years later, aren’t we?


Here’s what Birhan did after she survived the famine:

Geldof claims that she survived because of Band Aid/Live Aid — as this story says, she survived because she received treatment.

…to anyone with the basic ability to tell the time, that Live Aid could not have ‘saved’ Birhan’s life at all. Her father saved her life, by getting her to the feeding station; the nurse saved her life, by rehydrating her in the nick of time; you could even perhaps argue that Stewart saved her life by calling out to the nurse. But how could anybody credit a Live Aid concert that was not even conceived of for snatching this little girl from the jaws of death almost one year previously?

Birhan is a symbol, she says so herself. She also believes that long term, aid can create dependency, and that what is needed is better infrastructure, education and communication, but also that aid at that time saved her life and the lives of others:

All of this has been possible because, 25 years ago, my life was saved by
Irish nursing sisters who gave me an injection, and
food aid from
organisations like Band Aid.
So it may seem strange for me to say now
that to get food aid from overseas is not the best way. As well as being
demeaning to our dignity, my education has taught me that constantly
shipping food from places like the USA is costly, uneconomic, and can
encourage dependency.

The very point of her story is that while aid is no replacement for fair and just political and economic systems, she survived because there was help, and many more like her survived because of the injection of support provided as a result of Band Aid/Live Aid. That’s what matters more than the churlish ‘yes, buts’ of those who are bent on diminishing the impact of Band Aid/Live Aid.

Band Aid: The Song That Rocked The World (4 parts)

    Live Aid

    Written by

    Live Aid

    The Day The Music Changed The World: Live Aid was a multi-venue rock music concert held on July 13, 1985

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade