Some of the brightest stars of British pop and rock music recorded a new version of Do They Know Its Christmas? yesterday, 20 years after the original became an international hit and raised millions for famine relief in Africa.
Chris Martin from Coldplay, Will Young, the Pop Idol winner, Justin Hawkins, frontman for The Darkness, Ms Dynamite and Joss Stone, the soul singer, were among the host of stars to attend.
It says everything about Band Aid, the original version, that what is still remembered as if it was yesterday are the various performances and pronouncements made by those pop stars, but that little attention is spared to even ask what exactly, if anything, was achieved with all that money.
Consider this, from a piece in the Spectator by Daniel Wolfe a few weeks back:
Geldof was the front man, and he has played his part to perfection, then and ever since. This is not to impugn his motives: Geldof is undeniably charming and sincere, but that does not mean that what he says is holy writ. He told the international media that agencies had to trust the representatives of the Mengistu government, thus seeming to deny, by implication, that the aid operation was being used by that same government. Yet the places where the aid was distributed, and the conditions under which it was distributed, were determined by Mengistu. There is something remarkably patronising in the assumption that an African dictator – as ruthless and cunning as they come, a survivor among survivors – might fail to see an opportunity when it was staring him in the face.
As it turned out, Mengistu knew a hawk from a handsaw. In 1984–85, up to a billion dollars’ worth of aid flowed into Ethiopia. Thousands of Western aid workers and journalists flew in with it. The regime ensured that the visitors converted their Western dollars to the local currency at a rate favourable to the government: in 1985 the Dergue tripled its foreign currency reserves. It used this influx of cash to help build up its war-machine, it commandeered aid vehicles for its own purposes and, by diverting aid supplies, helped feed its armies. The UN in Addis Ababa, which was co-ordinating the aid operation, denied that the level of diversion was significant. Later on, it became clear that a significant proportion of the relief food in Tigray – the epicentre of the famine – was consigned to the militia. The militias were known locally as ‘wheat militias’.
Above all, the government used the aid operation to support its military strategy: it saw food aid as both a tool for consolidating control over disputed territory and as bait for luring people from rebel-held areas into government territory…
And so on.
And now? Another war. Another famine. Another generation of popsters eager to help. I do not blame them, not the younger ones. They want to help. They like singing and playing their guitars, for this is what they do. If they are hoping for the best as a result of their efforts, rather than fearing the worst, this is hardly their fault. They mean well.
Geldof, on the other hand, ought to have learned something by now. Twenty years ago, he gouged a ton of money out of everyone, and became a secular saint. This time around, the assumption he still seems to be basing all his efforts on is that although flinging money at Africa may not do as much good as it might, it surely cannot do any great harm. But alas, if a lot of the ‘aid’ goes to the people who are causing a lot of the misery out there, then his ‘aid’ may indeed do some serious harm.