I still remember my great feeling of accomplishment that hot summer day at Philadelphia's RFK Stadium twenty years ago. To be honest, it wasn't from the knowledge that I was doing my small part to help end starvation in Ethiopia; I was there to see the Led Zeppelin reunion. In fact, few people I knew who went to Live Aid were there to help starving Africans; most were much more interested in Tina Tuner's wardrobe malfunction (courtesy of Justin Timberlake's hero, Mick Jagger) and the possibility of an appearance by the Boss (the crowd, incredibly, booed Bob Dylan when he came out instead).
Donate $150 to a good cause (okay, it was actually $300 to a scalper) and hear great music; why not? Actually help end starvation in Africa--that seemed as unlikely as ending the Cold War.
Since then I—and hopefully millions of other music fans—have become less cynical and at least marginally engaged in the struggle against poverty in Africa. But as I listen to and read the arguments of the organizers of Live 8, the massive, multi-location concert scheduled for July 2 to pressure world leaders to "do something" about Africa's poverty, I'm not sure that Bob Geldof and the other organizers realize how much the world has changed since the last time they bought the world's music superstars together for the sake of Africa.
The problem goes far beyond the lack of African artists invited to perform for Africa, or the embarrassing disclosure that the white wrist bands worn in support of the effort were made in sweatshops. Much more important is the seeming belief that by setting politics aside, bringing together liberal rockers with conservative evangelicals, and just appealing to the moral conscience of the world's richest countries, centuries of immoral policies—and the incalculable profits they have enabled—will become history.
In fact, in order to "make poverty history" in Africa we first have to understand the history behind the poverty that continues to blight the Continent. For more than half a millennium Africa and Africans have been the fuel that fired European capitalism and modernity. The kiln was colonialism/imperialism, and the costs of 500 years of European (and later American and Soviet) domination of the continent are almost impossible to fathom: Tens of millions dead. Almost as many enslaved. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of natural resources stolen or otherwise expropriated in a system that continues to this very day (Want just one example? Find out where and how Motorolla, Nokia and Erikkson get the precious metals without which none of us would have a cell phone.)
Today, Africa is at the heart of the "arc of instability" (as US policy makers call it) that stretches across the continent into the Middle East and Central Asia and just happens to contain the most resource rich—especially oil—countries in the world. And in the era of post Cold War globalization it is precisely this region's instability that allows such great profits to be made by Western corporations and local elites at the expense of its hundreds of millions of citizens. Making all that instability (and the resulting poverty and disease) possible is the one thing no one at Live 8 dares to mention: war, and lots of it.
And then there's the watered down mission statment of the"One" project (one of the forces behind Live 8 here), which in its version of the Live 8 mission statement has adopted the Bush Administration policy of watering down international documents by substituting trade"fairness" for justice, debt"relief" for cancellation, and fighting African corruption when the scale of corruption perpetuated by Western corporations and governments surpasses even the imagination of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Such editorializing makes it very hard even for people who sincerely want to become informed and engaged in the fight against poverty and disease in Africa to understand our complicity in the disasters that have continuously befallen the continent since Live Aid: innumerable wars, millions of dead, the ravage of Aids and other diseases. ("One" urges supporters: "You've seen them in the pages of People and US Weekly on your favorite stars, get your band now!" If only it were that simple!)
Indeed, as No Logo author Naomi Klein rightly points out,"What keeps Africa poor [is] not a lack of political will but the tremendous profitability of the current arrangement. Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest place on earth, is also its most profitable investment destination: It offers, according to the World Bank's 2003 Global Development Finance report, "the highest returns on foreign direct investment of any region in the world." Africa is poor because its investors and its creditors are so unspeakably rich.
None of this absolves Africans of their complicity in the problems facing the continent. Indeed, from trading slaves to trading conflict diamonds, and like their counterparts across the Global South, African elites have enriched themselves at the expense of their peoples for as long as Europeans have offered a market for such goods. But if Bob, Bono and Brad really think Western politicians, corporate leaders, and their local subcontractors, are about to walk away from a well-oiled 500 year-old gravy train without a nasty, even vicious fight, they are sadly mistaken.
Even the latest much-celebrated announcements of debt cancellation are unlikely to make much of a difference on the ground. As Steve Tibbett, spokesperson for Make Poverty History explains with reference to the announcement of debt cancellation for many of the poorest countries: "This deal still leaves poor countries having to jump through economic hoops like water privatization and trade liberalization in order to get debt relief.” And as Guardian columnist George Monbiot reminds us, foreign aid is nowhere near as important as increasing imports of African goods: "Everyone who has studied global poverty - including European governments - recognizes that aid cannot compensate for unfair terms of trade. If they increased their share of world exports by 5%, developing countries would earn an extra $350bn a year, three times more than they will be given in 2015. Any government that wanted to help developing nations would surely make the terms of trade between rich and poor its priority."
But while this is precisely what Western governments periodically, including today, promise to do, such promises have almost always been broken. And even the most recent promise of aid has so many "conditionalities" attached to it ("tackle corruption, boost private-sector development" and eliminate "impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign") that Monbiot rightly describes it as a "truckload of nonsense." (Read his excellent analysis here:
I'm not sure how naïve Live 8 organizers are, but whatever their motivations or understanding of the situation, the problem with their strategy of depoliticizing poverty in order to make rich westerners feel comfortable enough to "do something" about it is evident in the conflicting rationales for the concerts they have offered. For example, Sir Bob has argued that the fight against poverty in Africa "is not an issue of politics, it's an issue of morality." He also believes that foreign aid to the continent "really works." Yet in the same interviews he also argues that the concerts are designed to "focus on the need for 'political justice' for the world's poor," which is necessary because "charity [can] never really solve the problems.'
The reality is that morality and politics are inseparable. And there is no way that anything resembling "justice" for Africa is going to be achieved until this is explicitly recognized. And when it is recognized it will become clear that neoliberals like Tony Blair and neoconservatives like George Bush simply cannot deliver on their promises to Africa, even if they wanted to, for to do so would necessitate radically restructuring the world economic system and the cultural values of hyper consumption and materialism that make the present system both possible and necessary.
Surely the conservative leaders (such as Pat Robertson and Jesse Helms, both of whom have supported the efforts of Geldof and Bono) courted by Sir Bob and Bono are unlikely to work toward such a goal. As Thomas Frank demonstrated in his recent What's the Matter with Kansas, their preferred modus operandi is to promise their largely white, Christian middle class followers moral certitude and"economic fairness" while delivering tax breaks and relaxed government regulations for their corporate sponsors. Why would they treat Africans any differently?
As for the celebrity liberals Bob and Bono have been corralling as part of their crusade to make poverty history, it's highly unlikely that Tom Hanks, Cameron Diaz, Dave Matthews, George Clooney and friends, most of whose biggest political commitment to date was to support John Kerry (remember how successful the Act for Change concerts on his behalf were last year?) are willing to put their reputations—and wallets—on the line to take the brave moral stance of, say, the Dixie Chicks, let alone radically change their jet-setting lifestyles so that they use a more proportional share of the earth's resources. (Here's a good way to start: George Clooney can turn his massive new villa on Lago di Como--where, incidently, he's outraged the locals by trying to have his beach front declared private property--into a retreat and training center for trade justice activists.)
Until the celebrity endorsers change their ways, can we expect anyone else to? And with 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians dreaming of living just like Mike, there's no doubt that 30,000 African children will continue to die every day, while the earth's resources grow more depleted by the hour.
At least Live 8 will bring us a Pink Floyd reunion. And then activists on the grass roots level, reaching across the global South and North, can get down to the hard work of making another world possible. That is, if they have any time or energy left from fighting the occupation of Iraq and the rest of the war on terror. It would be nice if most of the celebrities stuck around and got their hands dirty; but I'm not holding my breath.