Ed Driscoll

Live8: The Big Show, Versus The Big Picture

Last December, when the 1985 Live Aid shows were finally officially released onto DVD after years of being bootlegged, I wrote about the event–and more importantly, its aftermath–for The Weekly Standard.

The Live Aid concerts focused on starvation in Ethiopia, but collectively, the rock stars involved couldn’t see the forest from the trees. As I wrote back then:

In the ’80s, Colonel Haile Mariam Mengistu, the despot who overthrew (and later executed) Haile Selassie as ruler of Ethiopia in 1974, was more than willing to exploit Geldof and the millions of dollars Live Aid raised.

And the BBC documentary which inspired Geldof made little mention of how Mengistu exploited famine as a political weapon. His goal was to depopulate rebel-held areas by forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of villagers from northern Ethiopia to areas in the south. Instead, the BBC’s Michael Buerk merely described Ethiopia’s situation as “biblical famine.”

Buerk knew what he was doing. As he later told Wolf, “You’ve got . . . to make the decision, is this side story of any real significance? And also, at the back of your mind, is: if I overemphasize a negative angle to this, I am going to be responsible for . . . inhibiting people from coughing up their money.” Why let facts complicate a good story?

Between the BBC documentary, other news stories, and the Live Aid concerts, nearly a billion dollars flowed into Ethiopia during the ’80s. Most of it came from various foreign governments; Geldof’s efforts represented nearly a quarter of total.

Along with the cash, thousands of western workers and journalists began to enter Ethiopia. Mengistu knew a good thing when he saw it and used the combined tidal wave
of money and sympathy to prop up his regime. He required that relief workers convert their western tender to the local currency at a rate favorable to his junta, which tripled its foreign currency reserves, allowing it to buy arms and materiel. Mengistu’s troops also commandeered aid vehicles and fed themselves on the incoming foodstuffs. As Wolf notes, “it became clear that a significant proportion of the relief food in Tigray–the epicenter of the famine–was consigned to the militia. The militias were known locally as ‘wheat militias’.”

The money allowed Mengistu to string out his war efforts for six more years. Between starvation and outright murder, the war cost more than 100,000 Ethiopian lives.

On his Weblog today, Don Surber looks at what a mess Africa as a whole continues to be:

The Live 8 concerts to lobby leaders of eight nations to “forgive” loans of $25 billion to African dictators was the latest in a 36-year history of branding rock concerts with world events. Woodstock, concerts for Bangladesh and Live Aid 20 years ago oversimplify the complicated issues of the world for the convenient consumption of teenagers and twentysomethings.

So why is there poverty in Africa? Well, that depends on what one means by “Africa.” Let us look at the continent, nation by nation.

By and large, it’s not a pretty picture. Let’s just say that Bono and Sir Bob have their work cut out for them.

And then some.

(But hey, at least the musicians participating get fabulous parting gifts!)