Are We The World, Today?

Philanthropy through music

“We Are The World”, the brainchild of musician and activist Harry Bellafonte, had beautiful lyrics penned by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. To bring the song to life, Jackson and Ritchie were joined by a galaxy of music stars of the 80’s including Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick, Bruce Sprinsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles and many others. They made up a one-off ‘supergroup’ called United Support of Artists for Africa (USA for Africa), a convenient name for these musicians all from the USA. This 1985 track has the distinction of being the first-ever single to be certified multi-platinum and it raised $63 million for humanitarian aid for the famine in Africa.

A few months earlier, in December 1984, the British-Irish music scene had made its humanitarian contribution to famine in Africa, with the one-off supergroup Band-Aid releasing “Do They Know Its Christmas?”. Founded by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, Band-Aid brought together 80’s music superstars from the other side of the Atlantic like Bono, Phil Collins, Boy George, Simon Le Bon, George Michael, Paul Young, Sting, and many more. This single raised $24 million.


The first charity concert for humanitarian aid was held in 1972, “The Concert for Bangladesh”. This was organized by former Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison and Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and were  actually two concerts held on 1 August 1972 (one in the afternoon, the other in the evening) at Madison Square Garden in New York. Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr (another ex-Beatle) performed, raising US$ 250,000 and international awareness for war-ravaged Bangladesh.

Live Aid and “Geldofism”

On July 13, 1985, Live Aid – probably the most memorable event for humanitarian aid ever – was held at two venues on either side of the Atlantic on the same day. Organized by the energetic Bob Geldof, Live Aid held performances at Wembley Stadium in London (U2, Queen, Bowie, The Who, McCartney) and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia (Joan Baez, Tom Petty, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner plus the Led Zeppelin reunion). Phil Collins performed at both locations, taking the Concorde from Heathrow airport (London) to JFK (New York). What commitment!

The activities of the indefatigable Bob Geldof organizing benefit concerts and charity supergroups led to the coining of the word “Geldofism” – the mobilisation of pop stars and fans behind a cause. Geldofism has its fans but also detractors who have many criticisms:

  • The intentions of the celebrities is self-promotion rather than any sensitivity to the issue at hand
  • As they do not have an atmosphere of mourning, such events are hardly the appropriate response to tragedies
  • Geldofism turns celebrities into ‘legitimate’ spokespersons…
  • …which robs bonafide NGOs of possibilities to speak up for a cause
  • It over-simplifies complex issues
  • Has to contain much anti-establishment rhetoric to charge up its young audiences

These criticisms miss the point and over-intellectualize the reasons behind such events. Benefit concerts are designed to raise awareness and money for people affected by disasters and tragedies – that’s it. As long as they achieve this objective, they are successful.

Catalytic philanthropy

Benefit concerts enable a form a philanthropy known as catalytic philanthropy, where the approach is to mobilize a large number of unknown and individual people to contribute towards a cause which are endorsed by celebrities. The active participation and visibility of the celebrities results in more contributions than would be achieved by a verbal appeal alone.

The biggest advantage of catalytic philanthropy is also its biggest disadvantage – the absence of a direct connection between the donors and the cause they’re supporting.  There’s a ‘distance’ between the donors and the recipients. Critics say that such events allow people to swap active involvement in difficult issues for event wristbands. So what? Not everyone can be actively involved in causes, and philanthropy is good no matter what specific form it takes.

In this millenium

July 2, 2005 saw Live 8 – a string of benefits concerts held on the same day across the G8 countries plus South Africa. This was a massive, massive effort, organized (again!) by Geldof, and included of performances by:

  • London – Pink Floyd (a reunion after 24 years), U2, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Chris Martin and Robbie Williams
  • Philadelphia – Will Smith, Stevie Wonder, Adam Levine, Rob Thomas, The Black-Eyed Peas
  • Barrie (Canada) – Deep Purple, Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Barenaked Ladies
  • Berlin – Green Day, Chris de Burgh, a-ha, Roxy Music

Ironically, while Live 8 was much larger in ambition, locations and numbers, it did not make as much of an impact as Live Aid.

Some other notable benefits concerts that have happened in this century are:

  • 2001 – A Concert for New York City – for the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers
  • 2005 – Tsunami Aid – for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami
  • 2005 – A Concert for Hurricane Relief – for those affected by Hurricane Katrina
  • 2007 – Concert for Diana – to raise funds for Princess Diana’s favorite charities
  • 2008 – A Billion Hands Concert – for the 26/Nov Mumbai terror attacks
  • 2010 – Hope for Haiti Now – for the Haiti earthquake relief fund

From a start in 1972, there were a steady series of benefit concerts right up to 2010,  a highlight being Live Aid in 1985. But the scale and impact of such events have visibly reduced in this century, especially in the current decade. Why?

Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a psychological condition also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS). It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s, and is most often observed among workers who work directly with victims of disasters, trauma, or illness, especially in the health care industry.

Over the past quarter-century, we have had sensationalized news being thrown at us all the time. Stories and images of disasters, tragedies and suffering have saturated the news media. Journalism analysts now argue that this over-exposure has led to compassion fatigue in society at large, with the public becoming desensitized and resistant to helping people who are suffering. Looking at the trend of benefit concerts – as one way of expressing society’s concern for those affected by disasters – over the timeline from 1972 to 2019, this theory appears to be correct.

Compassion is a natural emotion in humans. But it’s hard to feel compassion on an ongoing basis – it fades. But we need it because life is hard, because it is essential for individuals and for societies.

Empathy and compassion in individuals….

Empathy helps us feel what another person is feeling. Compassion lets us care.

Empathy is the ability to imagine what it would be like to be another creature, the capacity of humans to view the world from someone else’s perspective. Perhaps empathy is most clearly expressed by Atticus Finch, who says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Science has provided evidence for empathy. In 1992, a group of Italian neuroscientists observed neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fired not only when they picked up a peanut but also when they saw a person pick up a peanut. Later, similar “mirror neurons” were identified in humans. Dolphins also have them.

There is also evidence that we humans function best, emotionally and physiologically, when we are loving and giving (rather than hating), and of course when we feel loved and valued. The effects on the brain (frontal cortex) and on the complex systems of the body (stress system, immune system, cardiovascular system) are distinct and positive. Long hugs help!

…and in societies

Sociopaths lack empathy, but a single sociopath has limited impact. When societies lack in empathy, however, history has shown that it can result in devastating human tragedies. These are the societies and populations which have experienced unspeakable horrors of genocide and mass killings. An extreme example is the Holocaust. But there are many (too many!) examples, recent ones being Syria and Myanmar.

In today’s world, individuals have become inured to disasters and tragedies (courtesy: smartphone + ‘social‘ & ‘news‘ media apps). Tribalism has also been rekindled in communities and countries (courtesy: politicians + ‘social‘ & ‘news‘ media). This has created a explosive mixture. Tribalism has the tendency to dehumanise a person or another community with any opposing view (or even just a different one) and  social media provides amplification, audience and assurance. This has resulted in a loss of empathy with no inclination to listen, let alone attend, to the problems of others.

In a speech in 2008, President Obama said “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.” Wise man.

The road ahead isn’t really a choice

Apart from raising money and awareness, benefit concerts also provide the affected people with the knowledge that there are people out there who know of them and their condition, people who care and who are working towards improving it. It gives them hope. But the disappearance of benefit concerts is but one indicator of a reduction in empathy and compassion across people and communities globally.

We have to practice empathy and compassion to reverse the negative sentiments and trends we see around the world today. This is not an emotional perspective – its a practical one to build successful societies. To improve the world we have to engage one another in an empathetic way. The responsibility rests with of each one of us, as also with our leaders. The alternative is unthinkable.

The Dalai Lama, another wise man, said “Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive”. Most religions preach compassion, but the most relevant here is the Buddhist concept of bodhicitta – the spontaneous mind that strives toward awakening, empathy, and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is a pragmatic way to live in an increasingly fractured global society and if we make can make even a little progress, it’ll be worth it.

Remember, We Are The World.



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