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‘We Are the World’

First time farce, second time .  .  .

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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We are the children

We are the ones who make a 

brighter day

So let’s start giving

There’s a choice we’re making

We’re saving our own lives

It’s true we’ll make a better day

Just you and me. 


Even so, 45 of America’s pop icons, from Cyndi Lauper to Bruce Springsteen, signed on and made it a hit. Released in March 1985, “We Are the World” went four-times platinum. Sales and merchandizing from T-shirts, books, posters, and more raised roughly $53 million to meet the urgent needs in Ethiopia.

With this war chest, Belafonte and members of his group went on a “fact-finding” mission to Africa where they discovered—somewhat belatedly—that the famines there were largely man-made, the products of corrupt governments intentionally starving people. Ken Kragen, USA for Africa’s president, told the New York Times, “What we’ve learned is that it’s not just a question of sending more money or more food.” The Times reported:


[T]here was the somewhat startling revelation that the relief workers involved in programs to feed the hungry were not asking that more food be purchased and shipped from the United States. The ports and warehouses of Ethiopia and the Sudan are already choked with food, the relief workers said. But arcane political, economic and logistical constraints have been preventing the bulk of the food that has arrived from reaching people in need. Similarly, many doctors advised against sending plane load after plane load of medical supplies. Africa’s most deadly disease is worsening poverty, they said, and it will take more than antibiotics to cure that. .  .  . By the time the U.S.A. for Africa team headed home this week, they had not decided how to spend most of the money that has been raised.


Still unsure what to do about Africa, in 1986 the group sponsored another fundraiser, “Hands Across America,” where millions of people paid $10 each to hold hands in an unbroken chain across the country and sing “We Are the World.” (There was not an actual unbroken chain of hands across America, mind you. The organizers merely claimed enough people participated that, if they had been arranged in a perfectly straight line, they could have made it from sea to shining sea.)

Between “We Are the World” and Hands Across America, USA for Africa banked nearly $70 million. By early 1987, the group told reporters that it had sent $5.5 million to Ethiopia, $6 million to Sudan, and $15 million to eight other African countries. The rest of their money stood pat, dribbling out here and there over the years, just a tiny rivulet of the $1 trillion in aid foreigners sent to the continent during the last 60 years. Not that the group didn’t make some lasting impacts. In 1991, for instance, USA for Africa announced the establishment of the Leland Community Development Fellowship to bring African development leaders every year to network on the sacred ground at the Carter Center.

Nevertheless, the benefit concert persisted. Following “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “We Are the World,” more pop stars signed up for the Live Aid mega-concert during the summer of 1985. The two concerts, simultaneously in London and Philadelphia—Phil Collins was so concerned about Africa that he took the Concorde and played both shows—attracted a global TV audience of some 400 million viewers. It was billed as “The day the music changed the world.” (Note the second “the.”) The money raised—somewhere between $80 million and $110 million, depending on who you believe—sounded impressive. But as the Los Angeles Times reported, “All the rock charities combined earned less than $125 million in 1985. .  .  . The Red Cross received more help from the Mormon Church than from Live Aid and USA for Africa combined—and with only a fraction of the publicity.” 

What’s never been clear is that the money the rock charities spent did any good. A long exposé in the British journal Prospect in 2005 concluded the rock ’n’ roll aid that actually reached Africa often worked to the benefit of the dictators who were causing the famines in the first place.

But the concerts continued. There was Farm Aid, raising money for American family farmers, and Self Aid, raising money for the unemployed in Ireland. In 1991, “The Simple Truth” was put on in London to aid Kurdish refugees. That show was caught in the crosscurrents of charitable fashions: Just days before the event, the Red Cross had to settle a dispute among Sting, Sinead O’Connor, and Peter Gabriel over whether the proceeds should be shared with victims of a typhoon in Bangladesh and starvation in Africa.

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