It was just one in a handful of benefit shows in recent decades that have become the soundtrack to modern humanitarian aid, raising money for causes such as victims of the conflict in Darfur and struggling American farming families — and at times stirring controversy on where exactly the money went and whether it was used effectively in emergency response.
Now, as Venezuela grapples with a crisis that has left millions hungry and displaced, British billionaire Richard Branson — founder of the Virgin Group — has announced plans to host a concert to raise funds for humanitarian action. His goal? About $100 million in two months.
Venezuela has been in the midst of political chaos since opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president last month. The United States and a number of European and Latin American countries have recognized Guaidó, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has refused to step down. He also has refused to allow opposition-organized humanitarian aid into the country, setting up roadblocks on the border with Colombia to ensure it doesn’t pass through.
The political upheaval of the past month came after a years-long economic crisis sparked a humanitarian disaster. Hyperinflation made prices for food and medicines skyrocket, and millions of Venezuelans fled the country to survive. Many of those remaining are struggling to obtain basic goods, and millions are hungry.
Branson announced his plans for a charity concert in a video released this past week, saying that Guaidó and opposition leader Leopoldo López asked him to help organize the concert, which he said will be held over the border in Colombia. In the video, Branson blames Maduro for the crisis, noting that he “is currently refusing to allow any humanitarian aid into the country.”
“We must break this impasse, or soon, many Venezuelans will be on the verge of starvation or death,” Branson says. In a blog post, Branson said he’s “old enough to remember” how charity concerts like Live Aid “moved the world to action.”
Branson started amassing his estimated $4.1 billion fortune by opening a record shop with partner Nik Powell. He called it Virgin Records and Tapes, and has parlayed his business into a massive holding company and venture-capital firm.
This week, Maduro’s government announced that it would accept contributions from China and Cuba, but called Guaidó-organized aid, which includes contributions from the United States, a “handout.” In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Maduro blamed U.S. sanctions for Venezuela’s economic woes, saying “the infected hand of Donald Trump is hurting Venezuela.”
No matter their intentions, celebrity-organized aid concerts have raised concerns among critics who say the money has at times been misdirected. As The Washington Post reported soon after the 1985 Live Aid events, organizers of the concerts and related fundraising efforts came under fire for post-show disorganization and alleged delays in money being sent to the people for whom it was raised. Years later, some alleged that some of the money was used to buy weapons for Ethiopian rebels. Geldof, the organizer, denied those accusations.
Now, as planning for a concert in Colombia is underway, it is unclear how — given that Maduro refuses to step down and his government refuses to accept aid organized by those who oppose him — Branson plans to get any of the money he might raise into Venezuela. The Virgin Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his announcement, Branson said the concert will take place Feb. 22 and will include a range of international artists. Guaidó had previously said he thinks humanitarian aid will be allowed across the border starting Feb. 23.