Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Live 8 not so gr8 

Sir Bob Geldof is reviving the good old formula once again:

Twenty years after the original Live Aid concert, Bob Geldof yesterday unveiled a lineup of classic acts and recent chart stars to perform in five global follow-up concerts that threaten to dwarf the original.

He said that in less than four weeks he had persuaded a host of big names, from the old guard who appeared at the original concert, such as Paul McCartney, U2 and Madonna, to the likes of Coldplay, 50 Cent and Robbie Williams, who were still at school in 1985, to participate in Live 8.

Unveiling the lineup of artists who will play a series of five huge free concerts in London, Paris, Rome, Philadelphia and Berlin on July 2, a week before the G8 summit begins in Gleneagles, Geldof said: "It's not going to be gloomy and doomy. We don't want people's money. We want them."

Geldof said he hoped that the involvement of the biggest artists on the world stage, also including Sting, REM, Stevie Wonder and Jay Z, would "create domestic political heat" in each of the G8 countries, aimed at forcing world leaders to drop third-world debt, reform trade laws and double aid to the region.
Not wanting people's money is a nice step forward. The original Live Aid/Band Aid enterprise two decades ago started off with the best and noblest intentions, raised some $100 million from private sources for the starving of Ethiopia, and made whole lot of people feel better about themselves - but in practical terms proved to be a band aid solution (sorry for the pun) and not a very successful one at that. As Daniel Wolf writes:

When Michael Buerk's first report on the Ethiopian famine was transmitted on BBC News on 23 October 1984, the idea immediately took hold that this was a natural disaster - 'a biblical famine', in Buerk's words - which would be alleviated by massive food aid. There was a severe drought in the region, but the creation of famine was a military tactic of the Dergue government of Colonel Haile Mariam Mengistu. For journalists like Buerk and activists like Geldof, the wars in Ethiopia were an inconvenience which were complicating relief efforts. Yet the wars were the principal cause of the tragedy.

When I spoke to Michael Buerk in the late 1990s, he still held the view that the wars had 'complicated matters', but he did agree that self-censorship had played a role in his own and others' reportage at the time: 'You've got ... to make the decision, is this side story of any real significance? And also, at the back of your mind, is: if I overemphasise a negative angle to this, I am going to be responsible for ...inhibiting people from coughing up their money.'

In the time of Band Aid, 'negative angles' were out. It would have been negative, although true, to have emphasised that Mengistu was one of the most vicious African dictators of the previous quarter century, that he was fighting three wars at the time (two in the north, in Tigray and Eritrea, and one in the Oromo lands of the south), and that his troops were committing atrocities in the region where the famine was unfolding. It would have been distinctly negative to have reported that the dictator was using food as a weapon of war - bombing crops and markets while setting up roadblocks to prevent the movement of food. The methods used by Mengistu's armies were bound to create famine, and they did.
Predictably, the main beneficiaries of Western generosity were not the starving Ethiopians:

Journalists and aid workers were not the only ones wary of confusing viewers at home with 'negative angles'. While it was Band Aid and, later, Live Aid that caught the imagination of the world, they funded only a small proportion of the aid effort: 90 per cent or more of the aid came from Western donor governments. As the governments would only deal with a recipient government, not with rebel movements, most of the aid - again, roughly 90 per cent - was channelled through Mengistu's hands. In a grotesque irony, we found ourselves supporting the very government that was causing the famine we were supposed to be alleviating. This was certainly a 'negative angle', and therefore, unsurprisingly, it received hardly any attention at all.
Now, twenty years later, Geldof doesn't want your money, he just wants to raise the consciousness and whip up popular support for causes such as debt forgiveness. Pundit Guy is skeptical whether this agit-prop tactic will work:

Dear Mr. Geldof, I hate to break it to you, but the people (teenagers) who attend your free concert will be there to see whomever shows up. They will not attend the show as a sign of solidarity to end world hunger. They will not leave the show and change their consumption habits either. In fact, 24 hours after the concert, I bet 99% of them won't remember any of the overtly political messages blurted from the stage. All the pontificating that will go on between acts and between songs will go in one ear and out the other. Oh, you'll hear cheers and applause alright - but don't make more out of it than it is. Crowds like these will cheer the breaking of wind.
Using entertainment to raise political and social consciousness can be notoriously tricky, especially as far as Generations X and Y are concerned. The effort to mobilize the youth groundswell for John Kerry did not quite work out in 2004, and there is little to suggest that "Aid or Die" will be more successful than "Vote or Die".

And performers aren't necessarily much better than their audiences. As
Sir Elton John said recently, "When the Live Aid concert happened 20 years ago I was pretty much a self-obsessed drug addict. Although I was pleased to be part of a great day, I really wasn't adult enough or mature enough to realise the full consequences of what we were doing." While no one doubts that Bono or Sting have some idea of what they're talking about (even if you don't agree with their positions), be prepared for another orgy of glibness, lip service and opportunism from the entertainment industry's beautiful crowd.

More aid was never the solution to the problems of the developing world. But it was always an easy way out, because all you had to do was to send (in most cases) somebody else's money without worrying too much about the consequences. The act of charity was an end in itself. But poverty is not a problem, it's a symptom of a problem, that being lack of democracy, freedom, transparency and sensible economic policies - and more money, like giving dope to an addict, only serves to be exacerbates these conditions.

It's so much easier though to have a concert or an appeal for aid or debt forgiveness rather than for political and economic liberty. It's difficult to imagine Robbie Williams and U2 playing for regime change in country X, or Madonna and Sting performing on stage for economic reform in country Y and international trade liberalization. But these are the things that actually matter. And so our boys from the 42nd Infantry Division are now doing more for the cause of solving world's problems, than our boys from REM strutting the stage.


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