30 years ago today, over 1.5 billion people around the world tuned in to watch a live broadcast of Live Aid, a fundraising concert in London and Philadelphia that featured some of the music industry’s biggest names. Live Aid focused on raising money to help Ethiopia recover from a catastrophic famine that swept the nation from 1983 to 1985 by exposing music fans and viewers to haunting images and videos of diseased, desperate, and emaciated Ethiopian children.
Throughout the 16-hour long concert, viewers were urged to donate. The collaborative event showcased artists like Queen, U2, Madonna, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Black Sabbath, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Mick Jagger, Phil Collins, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Sting, Patti LaBelle and many more.
Heart-wrenching images of starvation, megastar performances all on one stage, blunt and passionate appeals by celebrity hosts—Live Aid shocked the world into ultimately donating over $140 million to alleviate poverty and starvation in Ethiopia.
Live Aid achieved unprecedented success and set the bar for all future benefit concerts and celebrity charity events. It demonstrated the influence, compassion, and activism of the music industry, but how did it affect Ethiopia, famine, and poverty in Africa?
What Happened to All The Money?
Many heavily criticized Live Aid’s actual role in alleviating famine in Ethiopia. The over $140 million in donations mostly went to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Ethiopia. Many of these NGOs could not escape the control of the corrupt Ethiopian government that actively sought to worsen conditions for the poor and starving populations. Thus, the good intentions of Live Aid organizers, performers, and viewers may have resulted in worse conditions for many Ethiopians.
The actual impact of donated funds is difficult to measure and prove, but it is believed that most of the international aid from different charitable governments and organizations during the 1980s to Ethiopia was routed directly to the relief agency within the Ethiopian government and not directly to famine-stricken Ethiopians.
Live Aid was not a complete loss for Ethiopia since the event brought global attention to their famine and to poverty in Africa. Prior to Live Aid, starvation in Ethiopia for most Westerners and many others across the world was a forgotten crisis. Many governments had already carried out airdrops to deliver food to starving villages, but many more joined the international response as global awareness and activism grew during 1985.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of Live Aid (other than a legendary performance by Queen) was heightened concern for international aid’s long-term effects. International aid organizations began to evaluate how they sent money to governments in countries suffering from natural disasters or emergencies. Many moved toward a model of international aid that emphasizes justice and establishes sustainable development programs and community projects.
Live Aid’s long-term financial effect on Ethiopia, or lack thereof, helped those with even the best intentions realize that without awareness of local history, culture, and politics, even a $140 million donation could do little for starvation and poverty.