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Cyncial critics give cover to mean-spirited politicians over Bob Geldof musical

2024 February 23
by Paul Vallely

The new Live Aid musical Just for One Day opened this week. It is a celebration of the 1985 concert which drew the world’s biggest audience ever. It raised £150 million to alleviate a famine in Africa so terrible 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 sees a young woman, born long after the event, bumping into Bob Geldof and asking 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 focussed more on the event, and the man, rather 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 disparagingly declared that the show “encapsulates the apex of the white saviour complex” – a line 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 which cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behaviour. That’s not something 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 which has allowed a massive deterioration in Britain’s aid programme.

The UK played a leadership role on global aid for more than half a century. In 1970 we were key to writing the rules which govern global aid spending. We led the EU on aid. Tony Blair persuaded the G8 into a Gleneagles package which cut child mortality by 18 per cent, placed 21 million more children in school and provided treatment for 5 million people with Aids. David Cameron 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 £4bn a year and rebrand domestic forms of expenditure, such as housing refugees, to be taken from the aid budget. Almost a 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 meanspirited politicians.

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