July 16, 1985
"Live Aid Taps Compassion; But will It be Short-lived?"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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AN audience of 1.5 billion people shared the euphoria of Live Aid on Saturday.
The 16-hour spectacular starring 67 of the world's most famous rock acts has already
raised $70 million in pledges to fight hunger in Africa.
But now the musical roller coaster is over. In sub-Saharan Africa, 100 million
people are malnourished, and 20 million are near starvation. Per capita income
is $220 a year and falling. Population will triple in the next 35 years. Of the
40 sub-Saharan nations, only 11 have enough land potentially to be able to feed
their people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
The World Bank reports that if African countries carry out internal economic
reforms and if "concessional aid" to the continent increases enough,
it would help to slow the decline in living standards. Reversing the decline isn't
mentioned. Optimism about Africa lies in hoping to postpone disaster.
How can "Help me Rhonda -- yeah -- get 'er out of my heart" show
compassion for starvation? How would "dancing in the streets" sound
to people who haven't the nutrition to walk? What do the problems of the "Sultans
of Swing," who can only afford old guitars, have to do with a place where
people have nothing, nothing at all?
I know it's only rock 'n' roll, and it's not fair to give a concert the responsibility
for saving a continent. The concert was an awe-inspiring success musically.
But Live Aid claimed to be and tried to be much more than 16 hours of greatest
hits. If that deadly serious purpose is to be more than starvation chic, more
than a feel-good event for the world's well-to-do, the bottom line is not how
good the performers felt, how good the music was or how good the viewers felt.
The meaning of charity lies in what it teaches the donor and how it helps the
The $70 million raised by Live Aid will help. Many wealthy and talented non-musicians
-- businessmen, administrators and professionals -- could learn something about
their responsibility to others from even the wildest and flakiest of the rock
stars who participated. The day had a tangible emotion and commitment, a sincere
effort to be more than a celebrity sing-along.
But $70 million is a pittance in the context of the United States economy.
The federal government spends that amount every 37 minutes. San Jose is contemplating
raising twice that much to build a baseball stadium.
Seventy million dollars is 30 cents a head for every American. If the concert
audience was 1.5 billion, the average listener chipped in a nickel. By the standards
of professional fund-raisers, that may be a real success story. As a measure of
what people will do to prevent other people from dying, it's chillingly small.
How many listeners taped the music on their VCRs and stereos and carefully
trimmed out all those unappealing messages about hunger? When people look back
at Live Aid, which will they remember: the reunions of the Who, of Crosby, Stills,
Nash and Young, and of Led Zeppelin, or a renewed war on African hunger?
But turn the microscope outward, from donors to recipients. As one example,
Ethiopia has a per capita income of $120 and an average life expectancy of 43
years; the average worker earns only a few thousand dollars in a lifetime. More
than a million people may have died in Ethiopia last year. Seventy million dollars
could have fed some of those people, and people in Zaire, Chad, Burundi, Tanzania
and many other countries.
Obviously, money alone won't feed Africa. The Ethiopian government and others
use famine as a political weapon, to subdue opposition. Throughout Africa, governments
have driven their own farmers out of business by setting low prices for food and
botching their central control over key supplies. Governments have wasted money
on white elephant projects and promoted exports rather than their own food supply.
Outside assistance can help or hurt the African people, depending on whether
African governments use it well or poorly. Outside contributions can only offer
those governments the opportunity to save their own people. Money can support
lives, while the governments try to surmount corruption, traditional antagonisms,
incompetence and inexperience.
Live Aid did do something when faced with a problem that could drain one of
all energy. The organizers realized that hunger doesn't generate much interest,
so they put on an unabashed succession of greatest hits to raise as much money
Think of it. Millionaire singers belting out a few tunes to persuade the citizens
of the wealthiest countries in the world to throw nickels to the poor. Musical
royalty holding a bake sale to fight hunger, while everyone pats themselves on
the back for social conscience.
The musical artists know their audience, and the money raised will do some
good. But their audience should wonder why it takes a special event like television
news films or good rock concerts to motivate us to help, while the brutal fact
of ongoing starvation does not.
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