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Paul Vallely: Bob Geldof’s critics do not help aid cause  

23 February 2024

Sneering at a new Live Aid show has political repercussions, argues Paul Vallely

Old Vic Theatre

Craig Els plays Bob Geldof Just for One Day, a musical about the Live Aid Concert in 1985, at the Old Vic Theatre in London

Craig Els plays Bob Geldof Just for One Day, a musical about the Live Aid Concert in 1985, at the Old Vic Theatre in London

THE new Live Aid musical Just For One Day opened this week. It is a celebration of the 1985 concert that drew the world’s biggest audience ever. It raised £150 million to alleviate a famine in Africa so terrible that it was dubbed “biblical”. Almost 40 years on, we can learn two important lessons from it: one cultural, the other political.

The show’s narrative device is that a young woman, born long after the event, bumps into Bob Geldof and asks the cantankerous singer what it was all about. Reluctantly, Geldof begins the story of how this oasis of altruism came about in an age of greed and selfishness. By the end of the show, he has become intent on passing the torch to a new generation.

The show is a high-energy affair, packed with great songs, interlaced with humour and moments of genuine pathos. But, intriguingly, many reviewers focused more on the event and the man than the musical.

The Independent lampooned the show as “Bob Geldof’s tribute to . . . himself”. The Guardian condemned its “patronising image of Africa as a continent desperate for, and dependent on, western aid”. It declared, disparagingly, that the show “encapsulates the apex of the white saviour complex” — a line that another reviewer helpfully explained as “white people helping non-white people for self-serving purposes, such as admiration from others”.

Complex is a revealing word. Clinical psychologists define it as a set of emotionally repressed ideas that cause psychic conflict that leads to abnormal mental states or behaviour. That’s not something that I’ve detected, working with Bob Geldof over four decades. Are only black people allowed to respond to an African famine?

Anyway, the musical’s script acknowledges some contradictions in the Live Aid enterprise; nor does it focus exclusively on Geldof. The unsung heroes — who worked for free to print, pack, distribute, and sell the record, and who worked behind the scenes as technicians, first-aid workers, and admin staff — are all credited on stage.

This cynicism among critics who were barely born at the time of this terrible famine has political repercussions. It is part of a climate that has allowed a massive deterioration in Britain’s aid programme.

The UK had been a leader on global aid for more than half a century. In 1970, we were crucial to writing the rules that govern global aid spending. We led the EU on aid. Tony Blair persuaded the G8 into a Gleneagles package that cut child mortality by 18 per cent, placed 21 million more children in school, and provided treatment for five million people with AIDS. David Cameron, as Prime Minister, enshrined in law a pledge to give 70p out of every £10 of our national income to the world’s poor. Extreme poverty declined at its fastest rate in human history.

But a new cynicism has now permitted Rishi Sunak to slash aid by £4 billion a year and to rebrand domestic forms of expenditure, such as housing refugees, to be taken from the aid budget. Almost one third of Britain’s so-called overseas aid” never left the country in 2022. Our aid to Africa is at its lowest percentage this century.

Progressive newspapers should be exposing this scandalous reality, instead of allowing contemptuous critics to give cover to mean-spirited politicians.

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