Sunday, July 03, 2005

David Rieff on what Live Aid wrought in Ethiopia 1985 - a warning flag

The ever astute, often contrarian David Rieff - friend and co-author - has an important essay, Dangerous Pity, in Prospect magazine, July 2005, pointing out the unintended horrors created by Live Aid 1985. Here. Excerpts:

"[Subtitle:] The millions donated to Ethiopia in 1985 thanks to Live Aid were supposed to go towards relieving a natural disaster. In reality, donors became participants in a civil war. Many lives were saved, but even more may have been lost in Live Aid's unwitting support of a Stalinist-style resettlement project."

"Isn't it better to do something rather than give in to despair or cynicism and do nothing? This is the reproachful question familiar to anyone who has criticised organisations that view themselves as dedicated to doing good in the world. To those UN agencies, relief organisations and development groups working in crisis zones from Afghanistan to Aceh, any "non-constructive" criticism, especially the kind that implies that it might have been better for the would-be Samaritans to refrain from acting at all, is so much nihilist piffle. Edmund Burke's dictum that for evil to triumph all that is required is "for good men to do nothing" (a favourite quotation of Kofi Annan's) encapsulates this view. The standard argument is that to do nothing is to acquiesce in whatever horror is unfolding, from Saddam Hussein's Iraq to the mass killings in present-day Darfur. Whether it derives from the missionary impulse, so ingrained in western culture, or the purported lesson of the Holocaust—"never again"—this view of what the American legal philosopher John Rawls called "the duty of assistance" has become virtually unassailable. Yet an alternative case can be made: in the global altruism business it is, indeed, sometimes better not to do anything at all.

"Of course, those who believe it is always better to do something tend to believe that the negative consequences of their action arise from not doing enough. The most frequently heard complaint of activists is that western countries, both on a government and a popular level, remain too indifferent to the crises of hunger and debt that make life hell for several billion people. For most activists, the appropriate question does not concern the value of action, but rather how to mobilise people and focus pressure on the governments of rich countries so that more gets done. For over 30 years—as long as humanitarian action has been a principal response in the west to the crises of the poor world—a favourite metaphor has been to "wake people up" to what was really going on. Thus, in the Guardian in July 2004, the paper's media correspondent, Matt Wells, could write that the reporting of the BBC's Michael Buerk in 1984 had "woken the world to the famine in Ethiopia." The particular nature of the "wake-up call" in question was that Buerk's reporting got picked up by hundreds of media outlets the world over and is generally agreed to have inspired the Irish pop singer Bob Geldof to launch his Band Aid and Live Aid charity projects on behalf of famine-stricken Ethiopians. (Band Aid was the name of the group set up by Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984 to perform the single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" which raised around £8m. The Band Aid trust then organised the Live Aid concerts in July 1985—held at Wembley stadium in London, the JFK stadium in the US and and several other international venues. The total sum raised is said to be between £50m and £70m.)

"Activists who bemoan what they see as the selfishness and self-absorption of life in the rich world often point to Live Aid as a sign of how compassion fatigue can be beaten. In the words of one aid worker: "Humanitarian concern is now at the centre of foreign policy. We may not have an ethical foreign policy, but no political leader can fail to respond to the humanitarian constituency. Bob Geldof deserves a lot of credit for that."

"This is certainly Geldof's own view. He believes that the Live Aid "experience" was a profound social innovation that helped to shape the views of those western politicians who have shown real interest in addressing the crisis of development, above all in sub-Saharan Africa. As he put it late last year: "We have a Live Aid prime minister who sat in and watched it on TV all day. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are served notice that Britain, through its greatest artists, wants the situation [poverty and famine in Africa] changed."

"That said, Geldof, to his credit, has bridled at all the "Saint Bob" talk that has surrounded him since Live Aid days, and has often insisted that it was a disgrace that he had to carry the torch for Africa. But Geldof was, and still is, more than just a campaigner. His view of what Live Aid accomplished—and his critique of what has happened in Africa since the 1980s—is so mainstream that Geldof was not only made a member of Blair's Africa Commission (along with the current Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, and 15 others), but even sat next to Blair when the commission's report was launched on 11th March.

"For many relief professionals who work in the field, media coverage and the involvement of celebrities has always been crucial. This is hardly the way the relief establishment would wish things to be, but it is the seemingly unalterable reality of contemporary celebrity culture to which they have largely reconciled themselves. "Ethiopia would not have got the attention it did without Live Aid," Joanna Macrae, the former co-ordinator of the humanitarian policy group at the Overseas Development Institute, acknowledges. Macrae, however, has grave reservations about what she has dubbed "quick, loud responses." Such notes of scepticism are in short supply. Bob Geldof might say on television at the time, "just give us your fucking money," and justify the demand with his oft-stated line that "Live Aid was about people losing their lives." But every seasoned aid worker knew at the time, as they know now on the eve of Live 8, Geldof's long-awaited successor to Live Aid, that there is no necessary connection between raising a lot of money for a good cause and spending that money well, just as there is no necessary connection between caring about the suffering of others and understanding the nature and cause of that suffering.

"And yet, as the excitement about the latest Live 8 concert in support of debt relief for Africa has shown, Live Aid became the prototype for a new style of celebrity activism—from Richard Gere campaigning for Tibet to the proliferation of benefit concerts for the Asian tsunami. Live Aid also pioneered the idea of the pop star as interlocutor with government officials. In the wake of the 1985 concert, Geldof went to see Margaret Thatcher and, by his account, it was he who did the lecturing about what was to be done in Ethiopia. Anomalous in the 1980s, such meetings are now routine.

"But did the mobilisation of public opinion through celebrity endorsement really play the positive role with which it is now credited? To ask this question is emphatically not to turn hagiography on its head and to demonise either Geldof or Live Aid. There is no smoking-gun evidence demonstrating that Live Aid achieved nothing, or only did harm. But there is ample reason to conclude that Live Aid did harm as well as good. It is also arguable that Live Aid may have done more harm than good."


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