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Aid still has huge public support 28 years after Live Aid

Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, PA. A simultaneous concert was held at Wembley Stadium in London on July 13, 1985. Photo: Squelle/Wikipedia.28 years after Live Aid, the aid sector is perhaps under more scrutiny and criticism than ever before. Yet, surveys do not find widespread cynicism. Instead, despite austerity, support for aid is nearly as strong as ever.

This month in 1985, Boomtown Rats front man Bob Geldof and others cajoled international stars of rock and pop to join together in live concerts in London and Philadelphia – Live Aid – to raise funds to fight famine in Ethiopia.

The story that Geldof said "give us your f***in money" may be apocryphal but the message was plain. Live Aid has since been criticised for oversimplification, principally for ignoring the man-made nature of the Ethiopian famine, but also for what some have taken as its implied message that small private donations can feed the world.

Whether fair comment or not, similar accusations could have been made against many fundraising campaigns. It may always be true that humanitarian emergencies receive far more media, public and political attention than long-term needs or prevention.

Live 8 was a set of international concerts held 20 years later, in 2005, to influence the G8 rather than raise funds. It was a symbolic affirmation of the connected Make Poverty History campaign and a recognition of the importance of political leadership and international coordination in matters of aid, trade and debt (the campaign themes). Some of those close to those G8 negotiations in Gleneagles felt that Live 8 put important pressure on visiting G8 leaders, while Make Poverty History made a big impact in the UK, which was hosting the summit. (It also made a significant impact in Ireland.) The G8 agreement was an impressive achievement though one that was honoured in the breach by several signatories.

Live 8 was an obvious legacy of Live Aid but its full legacy is larger still and hard to estimate. The Ethiopian famine influenced a generation from which future aid workers, activists, policy analysts, journalists and politicians would be drawn. Live Aid's simple message of need, duty and optimism likely played a significant part. The concerts were apparently a formative experience for the last three UK Prime Ministers and two recent US Presidents. Bono, who performed with U2 in 1985, is a notable graduate of Live Aid, who has done much to shift US Republican opinion in favour of aid to Africa, and has raised the profile of African poverty in the United States and internationally, partly through the ONE Campaign, which he helped to found..

Not everyone agrees that Live Aid or its legacy was positive. In the years since – particularly in the last few years – aid has received a lot of criticism. (One of the best books on the subject is “The Trouble with Aid” by Jonathan Glennie.) Some of the criticism (notably by Linda Polman) has highlighted the severe difficulties with providing humanitarian relief in conflict situations, as with Live Aid in Ethiopia in the 1980s.

Other complaints have been more general, claiming that Africa is still poor, so aid doesn't work. Much such criticism of aid overestimates its scale relative to recipient populations and relative to other financial flows, including capital flight and tax evasion. Some critics assume that all aid has been intended to directly reduce poverty, even though much historical multilateral assistance has focused on the economy (with mixed success), while much of historical bilateral aid had aimed to serve foreign, trade or domestic policy – such as with tied aid, still popular in the United States and elsewhere. Critics also focus on African countries rather than on past aid recipients that are now much less poor (such as Cambodia, which Concern ceased working in on Monday, after 23 years). Political factors are generally ignored, such as the impact of the end of the Cold War on Africa, which precipitated many severe conflicts on the continent.

The aid sector has responded by using statistics and examples to argue that aid does work. Many Africa countries have been growing rapidly for years and there have been huge improvements in global poverty indicators in recent decades.

The global financial crisis has been another challenge to the sector, as this has led to increasing calls to cut aid ("charity begins at home" is a frequent refrain). Many donor countries have responded to the crisis by cutting their official development assistance, sometimes disproportionately to other spending cuts. Raising funds from the public is also more difficult in times of austerity.

Nevertheless, whether in Ireland, the UK or the United States, development aid now receives support from all major political parties and the general public. Charity fundraisers, campaigners and activists have all helped create that consensus, as have charity field workers and – particularly in the past – missionaries. Documentaries and news coverage have also played their part.*

The economic calculus has also changed now that external governments and investors see Africa as a land of opportunity rather than of stagnation: aid is now seen by by the Irish Government as self-interested as well as "the right thing". However, the general population continues to regard aid as charity and still strongly support it. This is evidenced by repeated surveys in donor countries. (Even though, in some surveys, a plurality of Americans say they wish to cut aid they wish to “cut” it to levels that are far above its actual level.)

The latest such survey in Ireland, comissioned by Dóchas, showed that the overwhelming majority support Ireland's development assistance, despite the country's battle with debt and austerity, and despite (as in US surveys) many people grossly overestimating how much aid is given by the state (31% did so by a factor of 12+), and underestimating how much progress has been made in reducing poverty in the last 30 years.

*A documentary series, "The World Challenge" (Via le Monde, Montreal), and images of the Ethiopian famine, were significant influences on the editor, who hopes it is possible to one day rewatch his old Betamax recordings of the Canadian series.

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