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Why I didn’t watch Live 8

The Live 8 concerts were held last week – 10 concerts staged simultaneously around the world, to put pressure on the leaders of the world’s 8 richest countries to tackle poverty in Africa. The event has been judged a wild success: over a million people attended the concerts in person; as many as two billion could have watched on television. Its main organiser, Bob Geldof (who also organised the path-breaking Live Aid concert 20 years ago) hailed Live 8 as “full of hope and possibility and life”.

Bono, the lead singer of Irish rock band U2, is an indefatigable campaigner for Africa and one of the main names behind the worldwide ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign. He is a man and a singer I have admired since I was a boy. His soaring voice and unique lyrics make my heart sing. His work has already resulted in debt cancellations worth billions of dollars. It has kept poverty eradication high on the global agenda. It has mobilised thousands of people who would otherwise not give a damn.

Why would anyone want to argue with that? Lots of people had a good time, and lots of money was raised. Lots of people felt sudden solidarity with the poor of the world – and were told by their idols what a good feeling that was. The leaders of the rich world looked at the numbers of people (voters) mobilised by Live 8, and took note. More concessions at the G8 conference in Edinburgh are expected. So have we finally started to attack poverty in Africa?

Forgive me, for I am about to join the band of cynics that views this sort of thing with concern, if not outright suspicion.

I am suspicious, first, when millions of people can only be mobilised by the promise of a good time. The world’s top music acts will be assembled for your entertainment! An unbelievable combination of artistes in one mega concert! An event to tell your grandchildren about! And all for a fine cause! Come one, come all – you’ll feel great, and you’ll be doing it all for the poor of the world. What a high that is!

And so, did all the millions of revellers really feel something for Africa? Did they catch a glimpse of the interconnectedness that binds us all together – one spirit, one life? Did all the exhortations by Madonna et al to “start a revolution” make a difference? I’m sorry, but at the end of the day it was a pop concert. A very large and complicated one no doubt, but a pop concert nonetheless. The punters paid their money. They came and sang and shouted and chanted with Bob and Bono and Co. They went home. Have they understood the causes of Africa’s poverty? Are they now devoting some thought and effort to making a difference over time? Do they understand that it is actually this very way of life – celebrity worship, sporadic bouts of spoon-fed intoxication – that keeps most people in the world poor?

Columnist George Monbiot pointed out recently that Bob and Bono are hopelessly out of their depth when it comes to poverty eradication. They are not advocating a revolution in thought or deed; they are in fact urging us to play the world at its own game: big brassy events that offer the average citizen a different type of hit; a high-tech PR campaign designed by top marketers; a willingness to engage with top politicians and offer them the lure of votes and acclaim in exchange for some high-profile concessions.

So this is what we’re getting: promises to remove debt burdens from the poorest countries – provided they liberalise their markets and privatise their industries; a doubling of aid money – provided recipients act on corruption and improve governance; a change in the anti-Africa trade regimes that lock out our businesses – provided we play ball and make life good for multinationals; and lots of feeling good about ourselves and our motives – provided we keep buying the records, the T-shirts and the glib slogans. The politicians, big businessmen and marketers, needless to say, are jumping on this particular bandwagon with undisguised glee. Get customers and voters on your side, and make them feel good about themselves? Count me in!

And so Africa may soon find itself awash in aid money soon – even though it has received US$ 450 billion over the years and has nothing to show for it. Will it work this time? Well, we can be sure of many, many things. The aid industry will receive a spectacular shot in the arm – offices, personnel and equipment will grow rapidly. NGOs will celebrate – their budgets will take off and their importance will multiply. Consultants and donor-country suppliers will make a killing. Many politicians will become even richer (you know how).

Yes, some of the money will go to building schools, buying mosquito nets and protecting forests. Yes, some will fund privatisations and liberalisations. No denying that. But the model will be the same: the rich world looks at Africa with a twang of conscience and a glint of opportunity. The rich world sends money and experts. The rich world offers advice and ideas. Africans – poor, dumb and hopeless – hold their hands out in supplication.

That’s why I found myself in the strange place of being in agreement with Muammar Gaddafi this week, when he urged African leaders to stop turning up at the doorsteps of rich nations to beg. Yes, damn it, stop doing that! Stop queuing up to impress with your anti-corruption programmes and market-friendly investment schemes. Stop elbowing each other to prove you’re more worthy of praise and funding than your neighbour.

Do something because it means something to you and your people, not because it is the “plan” forced down your throat by the bureaucrats and marketers of the rich world. Do it because it will work in the particular setting you find yourself today – not because it worked in Europe in 1950. Do it because you must allow your people to haul themselves out of poverty – not because pretending to help the poor keeps a vast international industry in business.

I am very, very tired of hearing about how Africa is uniquely afflicted by disease, how the sea is too far, how lamentable its leaders are. Tell that to India, China, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and company, who overcame astounding resource constraints and crippling wars to take themselves to exactly where we need to be. Poverty is a state of mind, period. We are poor because we think that’s all we can be. We are poor because we keep listening to the rest of the world telling us what we should do. We are poor because we keep accepting that the rest of the world needs to organise a concert to raise a bit of emergency money for us. We are poor because we, you and I who live here, have accepted this way of thinking. To think that Live 8 or G8 can be Africa’s messiahs is to continue the unspeakable folly.

That’s why I kept my TV switched off.

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