Aid to Africa

Despite the best of famous intentions

(November 13, 2012) A new documentary asks whether celebrity-led crusades to relieve poverty and hunger, such as Bob Geldof’s Live Aid mega-concerts in the 1980s, have actually made a difference.


A documentary on famine in Ethiopia inspired Bob Geldof to corral his famous friends to record the charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” He would enlist their help again for Live Aid’s dual fund-raising concerts in London and Philadelphia in July 1985, once more in support of relief for Ethiopia.

Give Us the Money: From Live Aid to Make Poverty History,” a documentary on the era of super-celebrity charity events and philanthropic foundations, premiered in North America on November 21, at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Presented by Ontario public broadcaster TVO as part of its Doc Studio Screening Series, “Give Us the Money” riffs on a catchphrase made famous by musician Bob Geldof during an interview promoting the 1985 Live Aid concert phenomenon he helped organize to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. Massive star-powered events on this scale have generated enormous sums in the fight against hunger and poverty – the original Live Aid concerts alone raised more than £100 million – but decades later, hunger and poverty remain problems of the present.

Although celebrity philanthropy can mobilize public and political largesse in extraordinary ways, the Live Aid model of giving has shown how aid money can be diverted from the needs it is intended to serve: cash flows into countries vulnerable to corruption are easily siphoned off by officials, and have been misused to prop up despotic regimes and civil war efforts. Aid handouts, including systems of foreign aid, instead of creating independence, foster cultures of reliance and provide disincentives for governments to do their jobs. Aid traps discourage investment and job creation (although the proliferation of Western NGOs in developing countries ranks as one area of exceptional growth),  and perpetuate an identity of need and hopelessness in communities starved of positive reinforcement. So says international economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, and longtime advocate for an end to aid to Africa. Interviewed for “Give Us the Money,” Moyo tells the camera: “these celebrities … if economic growth and poverty reduction are their motivations, they have failed miserably.”

Speaking to the National Post in May 2009, Moyo said celebrity campaigners “have become the de facto faces of Africa.”

“The fact that they globally are viewed as the people defining the policy agenda, attending the G8 and the G20, is completely absurd,” she says. “It is particularly ridiculous because I believe that the aid system has made many African governments so lazy they have created a vacuum where anyone – in this case celebrities – feel it is OK to jump in and start propounding policy on Africa. We, as Africans and as a global society, should want to hear from the African governments – what their plan is, what their strategy is. I don’t want to hear from the celebrity about what they think Africans should be doing any more than a Canadian would want to hear from Michael Jackson about the credit crisis.”

As well as tracking the rise of celebrity activism, “Give Us the Money” looks at the ploys used by famous fundraisers – of the Geldof, Bono and Bill Gates’ calibre – to win over politicians to their causes, by playing on their “weaknesses for glitz and popularity”. It asks: “is celebrity politics the right way of combating world poverty?”

A trailer for “Give Us the Money,” directed by Swedish radio and television writer/producer Bosse Lindquist, is available here to view.

“Give Us the Money” was also broadcast by TVO on Sunday, November 25.

Further Reading

Breaking the myth of aid. Dambisa Moyo’s remedies
Bill Gates: Foreign Aid 2.0
Africa’s ‘dead aid’
Aiding is Abetting
The corrosive legacy of Live Aid
Haiti: ‘The Republic of NGOs’

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