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Do They Know It’s Malawi Independence Day?


The media circus surrounding Bob Geldof’s Live 8 events today is intense, and indeed it is a notable series of concerts. Who doesn’t want to see Pink Floyd reunite? Who can resist the spectacle of Bono goading the long-since complacent Paul McCartney — you may know him as the front man of Wings — into rocking out? Who doesn’t relish the opportunity to be sermonized to by those moral beacons Will Smith, Bjork, and the tedious nonentities of Coldplay? No question, the 2 July concerts, hastily conceived and massively hyped, are remarkable; and the 6 July grand finale in Edinburgh promises to be nothing short of stupendous.
The premise of Live 8 — that “doubling aid, fully cancelling debt, and delivering trade justice” for Africa is not merely a good, but essential thing — has, by contrast, gone almost completely unexamined. This is, in part, because it seems like a self-evident proposition; and it is, in part, because to delve too deeply into the rectitude of the participants is seen as uncharitable and cynical. Particularly when, scalpers notwithstanding, most who enjoy these events will do so for free, it seems ungracious to critique them or its organizers overmuch. But as in all cases when hectoring figures — be they Geldof, George W. Bush, or a televangelist — demand action in the name of your conscience, some small examination is in order.

There is little question that Africa is a troubled place. Ruinous wars in the Congo, jihad in the Sudan, terror in Zimbabwe and disease seemingly everywhere present a picture of wretchedness blighting the cradle of mankind. On the other hand, the Ghanaian stock market is one of the best-performing in the world; South Africa continues to provide an example of comparative good governance; tourism is reviving communities in Mozambique; and educated African emigrants are enriching the economies (and often enough, the health sectors) of nations in Europe and North America. The question for those wishing to help Africa is whether the difference between success and failure is a function of external or internal factors. Live 8 appears to have settled mostly on the former, and in doing so, repeats the mistakes of a generation past.
It is instructive to look back twenty years to Live Aid, Geldof’s original bright idea for mass mobilization in Africa’s service. That concert was meant to focus attention upon, and bring donations to, the cause of Ethiopian famine relief. In this, it was an immense success: but where it failed was in its assiduous avoidance of the very causes of the famine in question. It is not enough to say that we now know that the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s was a classic terror famine purposefully perpetrated by Haile Mengistu Mariam’s communist regime; this much was known then. Mengistu’s forced resettlements, population transfers, and manipulation of food stocks was in the long communist tradition of genocide by starvation, and would be instantly familiar to its past masters Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. All the aid in the world, in the absence of a change in a government policy explicitly meant to inflict such suffering, had the moral quality of a care package to Auschwitz.
This is not to accuse Geldof of being anything less than sincere or well-meaning. He is unquestionably both, and those of us who have not organized globe-spanning humanitarian relief efforts ought to give him his due. But we, as the objects of his appeal, can certainly question its wisdom before parting with our cash — or, in the case of the all-free Live 8 events, our moral voice. Ethiopia today is still prone to famine; its peoples are still forbidden to own land; and the successor regime of Meles Zenawi has proven itself bloody-minded in its own right as it guns down demonstrators in Addis Ababa and pursues a little-known genocide in the Gambella region. We cannot say that the Live Aid money that poured into the country a generation ago was therefore entirely money down the drain; a life saved is a life saved, and of inestimable value in itself. This is certainly the argument that Geldof believes to be the final word. “In my opinion, we’ve got to give aid without worrying about population transfers,” Geldof told the Irish Times on 4 November 1985. He is wrong. Acknowledgment of having done well does not preclude wishing to do better. Nor does it confer a pass on ignoring context. Surely ending famine would have been preferable to merely feeding its victims? Surely feeding its victims is best done without aiding its perpetrators?
It would be trite to say so if it were not so very necessary: Africans are people too. Enthusiasts for Live 8 and the like take the lesson from this sentence that they are therefore entitled to the full measure of human compassion. They are right. But there is another lesson: because Africans are people, they too are autonomous actors, with all the independent volition and power of action and consequences that this implies. Live Aid focused narrowly on the consequences of Western inaction to the point that causative African action was dismissed by Geldof as irrelevant. So too with Live 8 today: Does Africa need aid? It is not purely, nor even mostly, because Africa is fate’s victim. Is debt crushing Africa? It is because Africa has borrowed. Does Africa need “fair trade”? If it is not yet competitive, this is not merely because it is unfairly punished; although here, at the least, the contention that external factors are unduly punitive is strongest.
Interestingly, some of the biggest names behind Live 8 implicitly grasp and acknowledge this. Bono, who as ever appears to be the rare celebrity to know the subject of his advocacy, recently acknowledged that corruption is the “number-one problem facing Africa….not natural calamity, not the AIDS virus.” This is borne out by my own experience speaking and working with the unsung heroes of public health on that continent: endemic corruption (and concurrent misgovernance) in their eyes is, if not worse than, certainly a close second to the blight of disease. In a place where a generation’s worth of corruption in a single nation has squandered the equivalent of three centuries’ worth of British aid to the entire continent, the issue would seem to overshadow, say, debt relief and a doubling of aid. Presumably its resolution would obviate the need for either. But how does one organize a concert urging bureaucrats to not extort meaningless fees? What rock star is going to lecture a crowd of apathetic Gen Y types on the problems of traffic-stop bribes in Kampala? Is Live 8 ignoring these homegrown root causes of African misery because its organizers figure there’s no meaningful celebrity pressure to be brought to bear here? Or is there a sincere belief in the African-as-reactive-subject that places the latter’s fate, as with a child or a pet, in the hands of others?
What, then, do we make of Live 8? Do we roll our eyes at the tedious sanctimony of the glitterati (a thing by no means limited to this event), or do we applaud Geldof & co. for displaying a rare fair-mindedness for that milieu? Do we measure virtue by intentions or effect? Do we accept the self-assessments of the would-be helpers, or the opinions of the objects of their compassion?
And will the final concert on 6 July be good? For all the hype, that’s the question that has been on the minds of most of the concertgoers from Johannesburg to Edinburgh. And as with its 1985 predecessor, it is what history will remember about Live 8. Pop music history, that is, not African.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 7:14 PM | Permalink

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