In 1974, the Soviet backed Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia, more commonly known as “The Derg”, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie establishing Ethiopia as a Marxist-Leninist Communist state on the Horn of Africa. The coup and subsequent heavy handed socialist policies expanded the Ethiopian Civil War from just Eritean separatists to include groups of separatists from across the country, including Tigrayan, Amhara and Oromo peoples, among many others. In 1983, the constant warfare, Ethiopian Red Terror (exactly what it sounds like), land redistribution, forced migration, corruption, deliberate starvation, and a drought led to a widespread famine across Ethiopia. Between 1983 and 1985, the famine and human rights abuses killed 1.2 million Ethiopians, nearly 500,000 refugees fled the country, and 2.5 million people were internally displaced.
In November 1984, a BBC news documentary on the Ethiopian famine shocked the world. The international community leapt to respond, but none so much as the British and American music industries. Irish musician Robert Geldof formed the super group “Band-Aid” who raised funds for the victims. Band-Aid’s single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” raised nearly $10 million, despite being culturally inappropriate for the predominantly Christian country of Ethiopia. In March 1985, American super group “USA for Africa” released “We Are the World” raising further funds for Ethiopia.
The funds by the charity singles were still well below what international organizations thought was needed to combat the famine. Along with Geldof, Scottish musician Midge Ure organized a day of worldwide benefit concerts, billed a “global jukebox”, that would raise awareness and funds for Ethiopia. On 13 July 1985 simultaneous concerts were held in Austria, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States, West Germany, and Yugoslavia. The two largest benefit concerts, dubbed “Live Aid”, were simultaneous showings at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK stadium in Philadelphia on 13 July 1985.
Both concerts were seen at each stadium on huge screens via near real time satellite transmission. According to the organizers, Live Aid showed that “humanitarian concern is now at the center of foreign policy”, and a new era of humanitarian cooperation would replace the Cold War. The line ups for both Live Aid concerts consisted of the “Who’s who” of Rock and Roll Aristocracy. At Wembley stadium, U2, David Bowie, Queen, the Who, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, George Michael, and Dire Straits headlined. In America, the JFK Live Aid concert was dubbed, “This Generation’s Woodstock”. Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, the Beach Boys, Phil Collins, Brian Adams, Judas Priest, Simple Minds, Eric Clapton, and Duran Duran, among others, played twenty minutes sets. The JFK Live Aid concert even included the first on stage performance by Led Zeppelin since the death of their drummer, John Bonham in 1980 (Phil Collins drummed in his stead at the Live Aid concert). 160,000 people attended the concerts live. The combined Live Aid televised broadcast had an estimated 1.9 billion (with a “b”) viewers. 40% of the world’s population tuned in.
The Live Aid concerts are mostly remembered today for their technical difficulties, both on and off stage. Led Zeppelin’s songs sounded terrible. The group hadn’t rehearsed, Robert Plant sounded like shit, Jimmy Page’s guitar was not tuned, and Phil Collins didn’t know the songs. Tina Turner had wardrobe malfunction which almost got the plug pulled on the whole thing by the FCC. Bryan Adams couldn’t be heard in London due to a buzzing sound. And Paul McCartney’s version of Let It Be was silent for the first two minutes. Donations to Live Aid for the first seven hours amounted to a paltry $1.7 million, considering the star power assembled in support. The numbers went up considerably after Geldof got on the BBC radio and shouted, “Give us your focking money!.” Despite the problems, Live Aid raised at least $127,000,000 for the victims of the Ethiopian famine.
That $127,000,000 brought nothing but greater levels of death and destruction to Ethiopia.
The victims of the Ethiopian famine saw little if any of that money, and even the money raised previously by the charity singles, “Do they Know It’s Christmas” and “We Are the World”. Geldof ignored warnings from the NGO (non governmental organization) Doctors Without Borders, that the aid money was being funneled by the Ethiopian government for nefarious purposes. Geldof worked with Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam personally, and most of the Live Aid money went to fund arms and military equipment purchases from the Soviet Union. Geldof was instrumental in getting Doctors Without Borders expelled from Ethiopia, removing medical care for countless Ethiopians. As a response, future funds from sales of the Live Aid recordings went to several NGOs instead of the Ethiopian government. The NGOs turned out to be front organizations for the various rebel movements in the country. After the allegations of Live Aid mismanagement and corruption proved true, many artists admitted they were shamed and browbeaten by Geldoff to perform at the charity concerts.
Live Aid made a lot of rich people feel good about themselves, but Live Aid did little if anything good for the Ethiopian people. Ethiopia would have been much better off without Live Aid. Live Aid can accurately be described as having funded all sides of the Ethiopian Civil War. Live Aid funds directly resulted in escalations to the Ethiopian Civil War, and its donations tied directly to human rights abuses and war crimes. The Live Aid funded Ethiopian Civil War spilled over into neighboring Somalia and further destabilized that country, resulting in United Nations’ intervention in 1992. The Ethiopian Civil War continued until 1991 when Soviet backing for the Derg regime and its successor, The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, ended. That year, Eritea won its independence, and Ethiopia transitioned to a US backed ethnic federation.
There is no question about the damage Live Aid’s funds did to the people and stability of the Horn of Africa. The only question is whether the Live Aid organizers were deliberately funding the Derg regime, or were willfully ignorant to the realities of the Ethiopian Civil War.
In either case, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Cool concerts though, I guess.