Whatever happened to Band Aid?

Bob Geldof c. Erik Charlton

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As we wrap up 2011 and enjoy the Christmas break, DiA blogger Lynsey Logan reflects on the Band Aid movement which fewer people talk about each year. Lynsey, a primary school teacher by day, is the founder of Schools in Motion, aimed at developing access to education for forgotten communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Many a familiar, unconscious sing-along song can be heard on the radio at this time of year, but very few Christmas records have brought quite as much attention as ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, the Band Aid charity record. Michael Buerk’s reporting from Ethiopia in 1984 is said to have inspired Geldof to launch his Band Aid and Live Aid charity projects on behalf of famine-stricken Ethiopians. The nation was enduring one of the worst famines in decades with aid workers on the ground feeling powerless to help.

Recorded for free, in 24 hours, from start-to-finish, the record was the brain-child of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. With a host of the most successful British and Irish pop music performers of the time appearing in the song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” swiftly hit the top of the Christmas charts and 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 several other international venues. It is estimated that £150m was raised in total from the concerts.

The world was suddenly conscious of what was happening in Ethiopia. Instead of sitting back and ignoring the images of starving people on the television, they stood up – ready to help, encouraged and inspired by Geldof’s desire and determination to make a difference. The sheer sum of money raised is testament to the success of the campaign and charity single.

But even Band Aid is not immune to criticism. Claims of self-righteousness were quickly thrown in the direction of Geldof and the rest of the band. Criticism of both the song and the manner in which it was recorded came from fellow musicians. Morrissey is quoted as saying, “I’m not unafraid to say that Band Aid was diabolical… It was an awful record considering the mass of talent involved. And it wasn’t done shyly it was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.” Further immediate criticism came regarding the bleak view of Africa depicted in the song. Suggestions that the continent has no rainfall or successful crops have been seen as absurd by critics. The World Development Movement described the lyrics as “patronising, false and out of date.”

Starving children in Ethiopia c. DFID

Most recently a broadcast on the BBC World Service reported claims that 95 per cent of the 100 million US dollars in aid which went to the province of Tigray in 1985 was used by rebel forces to buy weapons. These claims were vehemently denied by Geldof and the Band Aid Trust, and aid agencies within the region universally condemned the reporting. However, the damage caused by these claims will likely remain within the global consciousness, possibly effecting further fund-raising by the Trust.

In addition to the above, unconfirmed, claims, there is evidence of Band Aid and Live Aid money being used by NGOs in brutal resettlement programmes run by the Mengistu regime – ousted in 1991 –  who are also known to have committed mass murder in those same resettlement programmes. The politics and corrupt government forces linked with this were out of the hands of the NGOs entrusted with Band Aid money, however they sadly became unwilling collaborators. NGOs that stayed in Ethiopia faced criticism in the press. Geldof defended them, saying, “The organisations participating in the resettlement programme should not be criticised. In my opinion, we’ve got to give aid without worrying about population transfers.” Asked about the estimates that 100,000 had died in the transfers, he replied that “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”

Joanna Macrae of the Overseas Development Institute claims that, “Ethiopia would not have got the attention it did without Live Aid.” The fact remains, however, that Ethiopia is still one of Africa’s poorest countries, enduring another crippling famine that grips the Horn Of Africa. Did Live Aid and Band Aid make any real sustainable difference? Or is Sub-Saharan Africa still in the same position as it ever was?

This Christmas season, when you hear ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, with its uplifting finale of ‘Feed the World’ be reminded of those who stood up to make a difference, remembering there’s still a huge amount to be done.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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