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More Than 30 Years Later, We Finally Know Where All That Live Aid Money Was Really Spent

There are only a few moments so historic that you can ask "where were you when it happened," but the original Live Aid concert in 1985 was definitely one of them.

Freddie Mercury performs at Wembley Stadium during Live

The global even got its start by chance, when musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure saw a BBC news report about a famine in Ethiopia. The disaster came in the middle of a civil war in the country that was already a decade old, and the BBC's Michael Buerk described the ravaged country as "the closest thing you get to hell on earth" in his report.

Geldof and Ure decided to do something, and the idea they settled on was a charity song. The tune they wrote was called "Do They Know It's Christmas," and the pair hoped to raise at least $90,000 by releasing the song. But when big names in the music business like U2, Phil Collins, and George Michael joined the project, it became a runaway hit.

Sting and Bono sing on the charity single.Tory Daily

The song raised more than $10 million for famine relief, and it inspired a new project for Geldof and Ure: Life Aid. The 16-hour concert was a global phenomenon thanks to satellite technology. An audience of 1.9 billion people from 150 countries tuned in to see performers like Queen, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Madonna.

The American Live Aid concert in Philadelphia.Critics at Large

And while all eyes were on the concert, money poured in for Ethiopia. A bank of 300 phones were ringing of the hook in England as the donation number flashed on screen every 20 minutes. By the next day, Live Aid had raised as much as $66 million, and the charity went on to collect almost $200 million in the days following the event.

But decades after Live Aid made history, people are raising questions about how much help the charity actually provided to Ethiopia. Even the charity's own aid workers admit that money may have found its way into the wrong hands.

By the end of the years-long famine, more than 400,000 people in Ethiopia had lost their lives.

While bad weather and a nasty drought were to blame for the famine, many single out the country's dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam for making things worse. Mariam was the chairman of the Derg, a Communist military force that took control of Ethiopia in the 1970s. The Derg cracked down heavily on Ethiopia's civilian population while Mariam was in power.


Aid workers, researchers, and journalists claim that Mariam's government took a large portion of the Live Aid money for themselves.

As early as 1986, Spin magazine published an expose claiming that money from Live Aid was being used to build infrastructure projects by Mariam's government. Money also reportedly went to Mariam's military force, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front.

Aid worker Max Perberdy distributes Ethipian currency to merchants for grain.Daily Mail

Leaders of this fighting force told the BBC that they posed as merchants to receive aid money from the charity. John James, who was Band Aid's Field Director in Ethiopia from 1985 to 1991, says he believes them.

"'I would be surprised if it were any less than 10-20 per cent of funds," or as much as $2 million, "were diverted to the rebels.

"I think it is ridiculous for anybody to claim that not one penny of aid money was diverted. You couldn't help the hungry in the rebel-held areas without helping the rebels. You have to be realistic about that. It is probable that some money was diverted to buy arms. I believe a just use was made of the money. I think it fulfilled the interests of the donors."

James even believes he may have traveled in a TPLF convoy carrying weapons while visiting the country.

One of the rebels who claims to have taken money from the charity, Gebremedhin Araya, guesses that as much as $95 million worth of aid money from different charities were spent on weapons supplies for the Derg.

Geldof visits children in Ethiopia.Enrique's Dream

For his part, Geldof totally denies any claims that Live Aid money was misused. "Let me be specific. There is not a single shred of evidence that Band-Aid money was diverted," he said. "It could not have been."

Live Aid has continued to fund relief efforts in Ethiopia since the famine and conflict ended. Geldof budgeted for 60% of the charity's money towards long-term, sustainable help for the country.

Mengistu Haile Mariam was sentenced to death in 2006, but continues to live in exile in Zimbabwe.

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[H/T: Daily Mail, The Guardian, Spin]

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