1980s >> 1985 >> no-973-september-1985

Politics of Live Aid

I confess to being one of the millions of people throughout the world who watched the Live Aid concert, and one of the smaller number of Bob Dylan devotees who sat up half the night and saw it through to the bitter (as it turned out, in view of Dylan’s abject performance) end. And I admit to having enjoyed watching all those super-stars strut and stagger, prance and pose on my TV screen. But this was supposed to be more than just entertainment, and to remind us there was, during the sixteen hour concert, repeated showings of a particularly haunting and harrowing film of Ethiopian famine victims. Bob Geldof, the concert’s moving force, also continually reminded us that the purpose of the programme was to raise money, and he succeeded. Forty million pounds is a lot of money for a charity to raise in one go.

But Geldof also asked the question: why do people starve on one side of the world while on the other people are paid not to produce food, or “surpluses” are allowed to rot? He said that no-one had yet answered that question for him satisfactorily. I hope reads this article.

On the surface the answer to “what causes famine?” may seem obvious. Shortage of food causes famine, and the present food shortage in Africa is the result of drought. But is this really true? Why, when the world can be turned into a “global village” for the purposes of transmitting pop music , can it not be turned into a “global village” for the purposes of distributing food?

In fact the immediate cause of famine is a combination of events, which includes such things as successive years of drought and crop failures leading to the creation of deserts. But there is no inevitable relationship between even a number of crop failures in successive years and famine. The latter is more likely to be due, not to be an absolute shortage of food, but rather to its unequal distribution both between countries and within a country. So for example:

    “it is rarely the urban poor who suffer famine (because of access to wage labour) which is usually confined to rural populations which in many under-developed countries have little direct relationship with centres of political power, and therefore little influence” (Frances D’Souza and Jeremy Shoham, “The spread of famine in Africa”, Third World Quarterly, July, 1985)

And besides the environmental causes of famine there are also political causes such as warfare.

The immediate effect of food scarcity is rapidly rising prices and the movement of men to urban areas in search of paid work that will enable them to buy food for their families. At the same time farmers begin to sell their live-stock like goats and sheep in order to raise money. This leads to a fall in meat prices and hence in the purchasing power of the farmers, who are then forced to sell more valuable assets like plough oxen. When all these options have been exhausted, whole households and villages are forced to move to towns or relief centres in search of food aid:

    “Mass migration, usually taken as the first sign of a famine, is in fact a terminal sign of distress, and at this stage it is almost impossible to prevent mass deaths, however great the relief effort” (D’Souza and Shoham, op, cit).

The situation in much of Africa is clearly now in this terminal phase. And yet as long ago as December 1982 the Food and Agricultural Organisation said that Ethiopia would need 400,000 tonnes of food aid in 1983; no action was taken and the country needed 1.5 million tonnes by 1985. So why did the world not respond earlier? One answer is politics:

    “If countries supplying food aid want to ignore famine warnings they will. One reason why the famine was so bad in Ethiopia was that America, which is now supplying half of all Africa’s food aid, was sending only a trickle of aid until October 1984. Ethiopia’s government has few friends in Washington” (The Economist, 20 July, 1985).

The famine-stricken countries themselves may also, for domestic political reasons, not wish to acknowledge the existence of the problem. In Sudan for example, as late as mid-1984 the government claimed that there was no famine in the country for fear of the political consequences of admitting that people were starving.

But even when the existence of the problem is admitted and a decision is taken to do something about it, politics intrudes. The aid “industry” has vested interests: people who rely on the aid agencies for their jobs may be unwilling to co-operate fully with representatives from other organisations, which leads to pointless duplication of effort. For example, in 1983 Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) received over 300 fact-finding missions from aid donors. They got so fed up with escorting people round the country that they are now refusing all international aid.

Most aid comes from national aid programmes rather than international relief agencies, and much of it is “tied”. This means that the recipient government gets money provided it spends it on goods produced in the donor country. Clearly if the motive is to increase exports the interests of the starving in Africa are likely to come a very poor second to those of the rich in the donor country.

Another form of aid is “programme aid” whereby food is given to governments to be sold on the market. About a third of all America’s 3.1 million tonnes of food aid and 60 per cent of that given by the EEC takes this form. In theory it enables recipient governments to buy seed and agricultural implements from the proceeds of the food sales; in practice the proceeds are just as likely to be spent on maintaining the armed forces.

Within the recipient country politics frequently affects the distribution of food aid. In Ethiopia the government has tried to prevent food from being distributed in the provinces of Tigre and Eritrea in an attempt to literally starve the rebels in those areas into submission and to force them to leave the region for feeding centres in other areas.

So in entering the aid business Bob Geldof should tread warily: it is a minefield of national and corporate interests, political manipulation and profit-seeking which is likely to destroy the good intentions of the politically naive.

For the sad truth is that despite the razzamatazz that surrounded the Live Aid concert the amount raised, though enormous by the standards of most charitable appeals, was a pittance when compared with the scale of suffering. Workers who gave money to the Live Aid appeal cannot afford to give enough to make a significant impact of the famine, since most of us rely only on a wage, salary or state benefits to provide for ourselves and our children. We do not own the wealth of the world; it is not ours to give.

Aid is in any case a contentious issue: some have argued that it has damaging effects for the recipients since it has the long term effect of weakening the capacity of communities to survive independently. Certainly it has been used for political and economic ends by the international capitalist class to create spheres of influence in the “Third World” and to maintain client states.

But a more important limitation of aid is the effect it has on the donors. Whether it is individuals giving to charities like Live Aid or governments making pious statements about the amount of aid they have provided, a dangerous illusion is created. The illusion, firstly, that something is being done, that we really can “feed the world” through charity and the efforts of a few dynamic and well-intentioned individuals like Bob Geldof. Both have politically disastrous consequences.

Famine is not a temporary upset in an otherwise harmonious world order which can be put right by a quick injection of money and sacks of grain: it is an endemic feature of a world system of society which dictates that those who have money to buy food can eat, and those who have no money must starve; that unsold food produced in one part of the world will not, in general, be transported to where it is needed because no profit would be made. For in our society food is not produced because people need it, but because those who own the farms and the land can make a profit from it. And if it cannot be sold profitably then it is left to rot.

So while it may be comforting to believe that Live Aid has significantly helped those suffering in Africa from the insanity of capitalism, it is dangerous because it ignores the real causes of world hunger. To perpetuate the myth that charity can solve that problem obscures the urgent need for political action to get rid of capitalism. We can eradicate famine: we have the technology, knowledge and productive capacity to produce enough food for everyone and to transport it to wherever in the world it might be needed. There is no need for people to starve but they will continue to do so as long as we produce goods for profit. To remove capitalism requires a much bigger commitment on the part of the working class than it takes to give a fiver to the Live Aid appeal. But whereas giving money to charity might give you a feeling of having “done something” to help the hungry (which lasts until the next awful pictures of unnecessary suffering are flashed onto your TV screen), working for socialism will bring the reward of knowing that you are helping to create a truly humanitarian society in which no-one, wherever they live, will die of hunger. And then we can all listen to pop music without feeling guilty.

Leave a Reply