The ongoing global pandemic has highlighted the work of humanitarian organisations around the world. The United Nations estimates that 274 million people will require humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. Throughout this year, we will celebrate the selfless acts of humanity by a select number of individuals while appreciating the ongoing work of thousands of humanitarian workers across the globe.
‘The closest thing to hell on earth’
In October 1984 Bob Geldof was the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, a popular Irish rock band. He was moved by a British Broadcasting Corporation news report of a severe famine in Ethiopia where hundreds of thousands of people were starving to death. The disaster was described by BBC reporter Michael Buerk as ‘the closest thing to hell on earth’. Geldof was already aware of the fundraising potential of charity musical benefits, having performed in ‘The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball’ in 1981, to help raise funds for Amnesty International’s research and campaign work for human rights.
Feed the World
Geldof together with singer songwriter and producer Midge Ure co-wrote the song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ which included the catch cry ‘Feed the World’. Geldof encouraged British and Irish music artists to come together as the supergroup Band Aid and record the song for free in November 1984. The single was an instant success on the United Kingdom charts, and within twelve months sales of the record had raised £8 million for Ethiopian famine relief. Geldof later acknowledged that the song itself was one of the ‘worst songs in history’, while Ure observed that it ‘had nothing to do with music, it was all about generating money…’
We’re doing this
Geldof was approached in December 1984 by Boy George, the lead singer of the British new wave band Culture Club, with the idea of a live benefit concert. Boy George conceived the idea following an impromptu encore of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ during a Culture Club concert in London.
Geldof realised that a live concert was ‘a logical progression from the record’ and did not give British concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith a chance to say no. Goldsmith recalled that Geldof basically told him that ‘We’re doing this’. Geldof employed a similar approach to enlist musicians in what developed into an ambitious world-wide television event transmitted live to more than 1.9 billion viewers.
We Are The World
From the outset, Geldof understood that a coordinated trans-Atlantic concert featuring a host of leading musicians ‘could raise a phenomenal among of money’ with the ‘lingua franca’ of rock ’n’ roll. Already the American supergroup USA for Africa had recorded the Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones song ‘We Are The World’ in January 1985. The American single earned $10.5 million in just four months of sales in the United States.
Geldof and teams in England and the United States brought together live performances in both the Wembley Stadium in London and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia on Saturday 13 July 1985. The sixteen-hour Live Aid event included performances from the Band of the Coldstream Guards, Queen, U2, David Bowie, Bob Dylan with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Madonna, Tom Petty, Duran Duran and The Beach Boys. After seven hours the concert had raised £1.2 million, prompting Geldof to make an impassioned live plea for more money, after which donations increased to £300 a second.
‘We helped to change the world a little bit’
Live Aid is estimated to have raised some £150 million for famine relief in Africa, and an aid worker observed that the publicity ensured that ‘humanitarian concern is now at the centre of foreign policy…Bob Geldof deserves a lot of credit for that.’ Geldof himself was proud of the celebrity activism which Live Aid promoted, with the lives of starving people saved even as the nation of Ethiopia became poorer. He thought that ‘we helped to change the world a little bit’.
Bob Geldof the musician was now the activist-musician ‘Saint Bob’, a celebrity status which he hated. He felt lost when he attempted to revive his musical career in 1986. From 2000 he worked with Bono of the Irish rock band U2 in the organisation Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa (DATA) to promote debt relief, trade and Aids relief for Africa. In 2004 British Prime Minister Tony Blair enlisted Geldof for the Commission for Africa, which reported on Africa’s problems in 2005. Amongst the recommendations were a doubling of aid, the cancellation of debt and reforms to trade rules.
Geldof and Ure united again in 2005 for Live 8, a series of ten free live concerts staged across industrialised countries designed to highlight African issues just before the G8 economic summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. While the African issues highlighted by the Commission for Africa were addressed at the G8 summit, the conditions attached to debt relief attracted criticism from aid agencies. Geldof later observed in the events of 2005 ‘the end of that political period of cooperation and consensus and compromise’, and thus role of the activist-musician. Fifteen years later he reflected that ‘something like Live Aid can’t happen now’.
The strength and passion of Geldof’s convictions, whereby he countered mounting despair at the plight of famine victims with a programme of famine relief delivered through global televised events, have been recognised by a variety of honours and awards. Queen Elizabeth II awarded Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof an honorary knighthood in 1986. Since he was born in the Republic of Ireland in 1951, Geldof can use the postnominal letters K.B.E. (Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire), but he cannot style himself as Sir Robert. Nonetheless he is popularly referred to as ‘Sir Bob’.
The Royal Geographical Society awarded Geldof the Patron’s Medal in 2016 ‘for raising global public awareness and challenging the causes of inequality in Africa.’ Nicholas Crane, the President of the Society, said: ‘Bob Geldof is recognised for his role, over more than 30 years, in inspiring and encouraging people from across the world to discover some of the geographical issues faced in Africa and to become more aware of global poverty, inequality and the role of aid from the world’s richer countries.’ In accepting the award, Geldof said that ‘There is little else in my life that trumps this moment, you do me great honour indeed. Thank you very much.’
The Patron’s Medal
The Patron’s Medal is one of two Royal gold medals which are awarded by the Society with the approval of Queen Elizabeth II. When the Society was founded in 1830 an annual grant of 50 guineas was made by the reigning monarch ‘for the encouragement and promotion of geographical science and discovery’. Initially the award was given in money, then from 1836-38 as a Royal Medal. In 1839, it was decided to divide the award equally as the Patron’s Medal and the Founder’s Medal.
The Royal Medals were originally made in fine gold (except during the years 1918-21 when they were made in bronze), but since 1975 they have been made in silver gilt. Medals were not awarded in the years 1850, 1851, 1855, 1943 and 1944.
Designed by W Wyon (and subsequently A Wyon and then A.G. Wyon), the Patron’s Medal is engraved with the recipient’s name and the date of the award. One side of the medal displays the head of young Queen Victoria and on the reverse is the figure of Minerva as on the Founder’s Medal. The heads of Edward VII, King George V, Edward VIII, George VI, young head of Elizabeth II have also appeared on the medal.
Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.