Why just USA for Africa? Why not Hands Across America--a kind of USA for the USA? And, after that's all wrapped up next Sunday afternoon . . . why not move on to USA for South America?
"Belafonte says that South America is on the verge of crisis," said Ken Kragen.
During a lunch break last week, Kragen, who co-founded the USA for Africa Foundation 18 months ago with singer Harry Belafonte, paused long enough during his chocolate Tofutti at a Westwood health food restaurant to reflect on starving South Americans.
The pop charity impresario has made it his business, after all, to stay one step ahead of the national charitable mood, and South American famine sounds as if it has the right elements: It skirts touchy questions like Arab terrorism or South African apartheid. It's in our hemisphere. It involves children.
Best of all, it directly addresses the true and basic (and enormous) mission of USA for Africa: to end world hunger by the year 2000.
"What's happening in Africa could happen in South America," Kragen said. "That's the next big problem."
Contrary to the frenetic pace that he's been setting these past weeks at Hands Across America rallies from Atlanta to St. Louis to UCLA, Kragen is not totally preoccupied with next Sunday's extravaganza. For a man of his restless temperament, there must always be that next big thing.
Maybe Bolivian children will be in the famine focus of 1987, just as Ethiopian infants were in 1985. In the USA for Africa scheme of things, each year seems to have its new cause.
"In a way, it's the way I manage acts," he said. "You go the direction the performer is best suited for."
In 1986, he figured that America was best suited for a domestic charity pitch. This was long before he knew that Libyan terrorism might make Africa a public relations hard-sell. But he pleads that he hasn't forgotten his foundation's original purpose.
For example, a USA for Africa Foundation entourage recently returned from a month in Africa. The group, headed by Operation California's Richard Walden, was dispatched to see how the "We Are the World" album royalties were being spent on road rebuilding in the Sudan, rehabilitation projects in Ethiopia and bridge repairs in Chad.
The Walden expedition was all but ignored in the press, even though the foundation's board of directors voted two weeks ago to hire two new full-time employees as a direct result of the trip. The two new monitors will make frequent trips to Sudan, Ethiopia and other drought-stricken African countries. It may go unheralded in the media, but massive starvation remains a major threat in East Africa, according to recent reports from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees.
When Kragen, Belafonte, Marlon Jackson and other USA for Africa officials visited East Africa in June, the trip was given massive TV and press coverage. It became the meat of a prime-time CBS special.
But African famine was a hot issue then, Kragen said. USA for Africa hasn't forgotten about Africa, he insisted. It's just that USA for Africa's brand of altruism is, as Kragen explains it, a kind of constructive opportunism and opportunity is knocking at the door of America's Skid Row, not in Africa.
Last fall, the USA for Africa board of directors toyed with the idea of giving half the Hands Across America largess to African relief, but Kragen successfully overrode those sentiments.
Even as early as last August, he could sense a shift in America's generous mood away from Africa: "If you tried to sell a confused message right now--'This goes to Africa; this goes to America'--you'd find a big segment of the population who'd say, 'Hey, we did a lot for them already. What about us?' "
So the United States will get 100% of the Hands Across America earnings next Sunday. After about $12 million in expenses, including $3 million for liability insurance premiums, USA for Africa hopes to net $50 million. USA for Africa officials said that 60% of it will be spent immediately in soup kitchens, health clinics and midnight missions coast to coast. The remainder will be given out in long-term development grants for such programs as unemployment rehabilitation and low-cost housing.
Eventually the spotlight will turn back to Africa--but not soon, Kragen said.
Irish rocker Bob Geldof, the other pop charity star to emerge from 1985, represents what happens when a promoter does not shift with public opinion from cause to cause. The founder of Band Aid has kept his focus on African need in 1986, but his Sport Aid follow-up to last year's Live Aid success has received scant media attention in this country. Just last week, Geldof announced that his Band Aid/Live Aid Trust, which has raised more than $100 million for African famine relief, will dissolve in December.