By Shane McGinley
Outspoken Irish musician and charity campaigner Sir Bob Geldof reveals how Dubai was the unlikely catalyst for the initial success of Live Aid and why he is leading a $250m private equity fund into Africa, “the safest zone to be in” right now
There was an iconic moment during Live Aid at Wembley Stadium in 1985 when folklore would have you believe that organiser Bob Geldof was appealing to the crowd for much-needed donations. "Give us your money" (or a slightly more colourful version), he famously shouted at the audience.
While the fiery Irish musician, and honorary knight of the British Empire since 1986, says he never uttered the words that have been eternally linked to him, on the day itself, anyway, he admits he was worried people were simply enjoying the music and forgetting the fundraising purpose. The event was in danger of becoming a great show but a charity flop, he remembers.
“It was a blistering day in England and TVs were out on the lawns and picnickers and viewers had forgotten what [Live Aid] was all about,” Geldof says. “I was beginning to freak out and running up to the broadcaster and telling them to remind people.”
But, in fact, it was not only in England where people were glued to their screens watching stars including Queen, David Bowie, U2 and Elton John. More than 7,000 kms away, the Dubai ruling family was watching the fanfare and quickly answered Geldof’s rallying cry for help.
“Bizarrely, the first big break during [the first] Live Aid came from a member of the Al Maktoum family … [I was] backstage panicking that this wasn’t happening, as people were so entranced by the bands and had forgotten what it was all about … [when] I got a call from the lawyers saying Al Maktoum was donating $1m on behalf of Dubai, and nobody really knew Dubai then. And that was a really big breakthrough.”
It certainly got the ball rolling because, as we all know now, Live Aid’s dual concerts in London and Philadelphia, in the US, went on to raise £150 million ($283.6m in today’s currency) to address poverty in Africa.
“There is a fondness because of that,” he says of Dubai, where we are conducting the interview. As a sort of thank you to the emirate for being the essential catalyst when it counted, Geldof has played a St Patrick’s Day gig at the Irish Village music venue in Dubai every year for the past decade.
While the Al Maktoum donation kick started a flow of Live Aid donations in 1985, it has not had the same effect on the philanthropic attitude in the Arab world, Geldof says. While many regional billionaires donate significant sums, it needs to be better managed.
“[Arabs] tend to do it very discreetly instead of aid, which is a massive problem, because unless you know what the aid is you don’t know how it is being spent; unless you know these things you don’t know if it’s effective. The only way aid is effective is if it’s predictive, that the flow is year upon year,” Geldof says.
“If you set up 100 schools there is no point doing it for a few years, then the schools close. Those things need to be more transparent, and that goes across the board in this region; everything needs to be more transparent and people need to be more accountable.”
While Geldof has an affinity to the region, his true passion is, of course, the African continent. After the success of the Live Aid concerts in raising money for famine relief, Geldof and fellow Irish musician/campaigner Bono teamed up with the late president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, to go one step further and persuaded the richest countries to forgive Africa's crippling debts.
The dues of up to 30 low-income, sub-Sahara African countries were reduced under the International Monetary Fund and World Bank's Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. An estimated $100bn was wiped out, easing countries' debt burdens, which had often been taken on by corrupt regimes and resulted in health and education programmes being side-lined in order to make debt repayments.
But economists and analysts are now warning that many of those countries, in striving to join the growing club of dollar bond issuers, risk sliding back into debt and undoing recent economic gains.
Debt levels already are creeping back up in Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique, Senegal, Niger, Malawi, Benin and Sao Tome and Principe. If they continue to borrow and grow at current rates their debt indicators could be back to pre-relief levels within a decade.
So does Geldof worry that all his hard work lobbying for African countries has been in vain?
“It depends on what sort of debt it is,” he says. “If it’s Chinese non-concessional debt then it’s a problem, but everyone goes back to the bank. You’ve got a house and mortgage. You go back to the bank if you want a second mortgage or if you want to expand or you sell and you need a new one.”
In fact, far from the white elephant problem on the worldwide stage, Geldof believes Africa is the place to be right now if you are a serious business investor.
“I would certainly view Africa as the safest zone to be in, economically and socially, right now. First off, Europe, the size of Congo, is extremely fractious at the moment and very dangerous because we are extremely armed,” he says.
“And you’ve got a political criminal engaging in gangsterism over in Russia, [which is] invading countries. Europe has put itself in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s noose by being 30 percent dependent on Russian oil and gas, which we are now trying to disengage ourselves from. So where will we get that alternative energy from? Guess. Africa.
“Asia is in the same boat; it is completely fractious and vociferous and there is hardly a country you could name that isn’t in a state of simmering violence, and I would include Japan.”
In addition to lobbying direct to politicians, last year Geldof went back on the charity trail when he reformed the Band Aid charity super group. Originally formed in 1984 by Geldof and Scottish musician and songwriter Midge Ure, Band Aid was the catalyst for Live Aid. The single, ‘Do They Know It's Christmas?’ was released to raise money for famine victims in Ethiopia and was a huge success, going to number one and selling over 3m copies in five weeks.
New versions were recorded, including new artists, in 1989 and 2004, and Band Aid 30 in 2014 was used to raise money for Ebola victims in West Africa. The 2014 single was a success but was still criticised by some in the UK and Africa, including the New African magazine, which is partnered with CNN and BBC.
“If Bob Geldof and his Band Aid buddies really want to help, they should stop portraying the continent as helpless and full of dread and start addressing the structural problems that are holding the continent back,” the magazine said in an editorial in January, 2015. “I would say the majority of Africans are deeply tired of Geldof’s patronising ways. If he genuinely wants to help, he should direct his time and efforts into trying to tackle the deep structural problems.”
When I bring this to Geldof’s attention, he unsurprisingly takes umbrage with the magazine’s stance. “If you have a crisis like Ebola, where there are thousands of people dying in a state where there is no national health service whatsoever, what does this man want us to do? Does he want to see his fellow continentals die and us to watch them die in our living rooms or do we do something to try and prevent it?
“I will always, every single time, do it. Every time. He has to try and stop pretending about Africa. Governance in Africa is absolutely hopeless. It is not Ebola that drags the continent down, it’s not Bob Geldof that drags it down, it’s their cr*p governments.
“Seven of the top 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa. The final point is, he should read a bit more, as I raised quite a large private equity fund for African investment which I am chairman of and which we own… So if he’s looking for funds he should knock on their door.”
The private equity fund Geldof refers to is 8 Miles, which focuses on investments in Africa and consists of a team that has worked for companies such as HSBC, JP Morgan, Helios Investment Partners, Goldman Sachs, Standard Chartered and the Boston Consulting Group. Only last month, it acquired a 42 percent stake in Orient Bank, a medium-sized Ugandan commercial bank, which it hopes will help it tap into a growing economy and a largely unbanked population.
Geldof reveals that just weeks before the Ebola crisis erupted in West Africa, 8 Miles was on the verge of investing heavily in Sierra Leone. “It was the total collapse of the economy. I know this as I was the chairman of a company which was investing $250m in Sierra Leone eight weeks before this kicked off and we had to withdraw as the economy was getting trashed.
“This is nothing to do with governance, it is to do with nature. What immediately happened was school kids stopped going to school because their parents wouldn’t let them go. Teachers wouldn’t attend school for the same reason. Farmers stopped going to market for fear of contagion and they couldn’t make money. No food went to the market so people went hungry and they couldn’t buy seed for next year so there is going to be a bad crop next year.
“The $250m - which is serious money in Sierra Leone - where does that go now? So you have seen the complete collapse. They were just getting off their knees after the worse civil war ever and then this knocks them down [again].”
While Ebola, poverty and debt relief are Geldof’s pinnacle causes, he believes that wealth inequality is his next biggest bugbear to focus on.
“This is the greatest - single greatest - problem in the world," he says. "The real inequality is income earning, [even] in North America, where the middle class is collapsing. The 1 percent [of the world’s richest people], of which I am one, own 86 percent of the world’s economic goods. The top 33 people in the world have a GDP greater than … many countries; that is nonsense and that leads to the situation we are in now, the most dangerous since 1914, without any question.”
Geldof is indeed one of the 1 percent, as various reports put his wealth at anywhere between $30m and $150m. He made his fortune mainly from TV production when he established the Planet 24 production unit in 1992. It produced iconic British shows like the cult classic The Word and the morning show The Big Breakfast.
Its biggest success was the creation of the Survivor reality TV format which saw a group of strangers left on a remote island and filmed 24 hours a day. Debuting in 1997, it was an instant hit and was a catalyst for the current craze for reality TV shows.
“It started with the programme 'The Word'. My partner came up with a slot called ‘I would do anything to be on television’ and you’d have people getting into vats of worms and an 18-year-old snogging an 80-year-old,” Geldof recalls.
“They said ‘can you could take that further’, so we developed Survivor… Put [the show’s stars] under these conditions, like eating slugs, but you keep at it and you isolate them. It was Lord of the Flies meets The Word. But nobody bought it, the BBC, as usual, ripped us off and copied it. So we sold it to the Swedes first, who had a hit, and then to all of Scandinavia.
“It took off in the States and was mega. Big Brother took off on the back of The Big Breakfast, which was in a house. Putting people under stressful conditions, which was Survivor. They took those two elements and put them together.”
As a result, I wonder if we can then take the timeline to its obvious conclusion and therefore hold him up to blame for inflicting the Kardashians on the world? “You can,” he laughs.
“What you are seeing is an avatar of privacy. Most people on Facebook or Twitter are pretending to be the person they wish they were. They put ideas of themselves up there, but they are not real. If you get into it, is this woman [Kim Kardashian] exploiting an idea of herself? Absolutely. Was The Osbournes TV show playing up Ozzy? Yes. Were they like that in real life? To a point. This was just using this new phenomenon.”
Back to charity work. When Geldof did Band Aid 30 he organised French and German versions of the single and managed to get German Chancellor Angela Merkel to give $50m in extra aid to Sierra Leone on the back of it. So why not this part of the world and why not Band Aid Arabia?
“No, because I don’t know anyone here. I could, but I don’t know the artists and I’m not sure they get the plot and I don’t know what the culture is here,” he answers.
“They say ‘we don’t do that’. When you have a large number of popular artists, you have a large audience and unless it is steered well it gets out of control.”
But with a year before Geldof is due to return to Dubai for his annual St Patrick’s Day gig, I’m sure the emirate can muster up enough regional artists to put on a live charity show, radio stations to broadcast it and reporters to cover it. After all, anyone who underestimate Sir Bob is doomed to fail, and likely to get a colourful response in return.