Posted: Thu Jun 30, 2005 6:51 pm Post subject: As Live8 pushes G-8, who benefits?
It is virtually impossible these days to open a newspaper or turn on the television here without confronting the cavalier locks, rumpled visage and hectoring tones of Bob Geldof, the former lead singer of the Boomtown Rats now cast as Africa's savior.
With awesome ubiquity - a rock concert here, a documentary there, interviews at every turn - he offers his listeners a blend of profanity, rage and messianic imprecation, urging the political leaders of the developed world to end Africa's poverty by rewriting the rules on aid, trade and debt.
"To die of hunger is an intellectual absurdity and morally repulsive," Geldof told the crowd last weekend at a rock concert in Glastonbury in western England.
This weekend, in anticipation of the annual summit meeting of the Group of 8 leading industrial nations in Scotland next week, there are to be demonstrations and free concerts spanning the globe under the title Live8.
Beyond the high-sounding pronouncements, though, the last-minute series of events arranged by Geldof signals a profound - and to some worrisome - shift in the realm of mass activism by the world's richest people in the name of the poorest.
Celebrity and politics have merged. Today, no well-heeled rock or movie star can ignore the lure of association with a good cause; no politician can resist the siren call of stars whose message reaches an audience beyond the realm of formal politics.
But aid experts are questioning whether the emphasis on celebrities and one-time hyper events does not do more harm than good, distracting attention from the difficult, long-term problems that need to be solved if poverty, hunger and disease are to be defeated.
"We have given up on politicians as achievers of transformation," Chris Blackhurst, an editor, wrote in London's Evening Standard. "In this age of celebrity, this summer, the celebrity has become king."
The alliance of forces focusing their demands on the G-8 leaders embraces movie-makers, rock stars and Hollywood actors such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz. The last-minute series of events arranged by Geldof carries more than an echo of the Live Aid concerts he arranged 20 years ago in response to famine in Ethiopia.
Unlike at Live Aid, though, Geldof is not asking for money. This time he is seeking an overwhelming show of political support to remind G-8 leaders of the power they wield. Last weekend a prime time television movie on the BBC by Richard Curtis - a major Geldof ally and supporter of Britain's Make Poverty History campaign, whose film credits include "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually" - illustrated some of the thinking.
Entitled "The Girl in the Café," the movie revolved around a fictional G-8 summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, where romance between a meek, middle-aged civil servant, Lawrence, and a mysterious young woman, Gina, intertwine with the politics of global poverty.
"Eight men in one room could quite literally save hundreds of millions of lives," Lawrence, played by Bill Nighy, says, echoing a campaign slogan.
Aid experts are not so confident.
"It's a good thing, in that the focus is on Africa," said Richard Dowden, head of the Royal African Society, a private policy research group. "The danger is that it concentrates on one big push, and if you don't get what you are asking for, you are setting yourself up for disillusionment."
Indeed, some fundamental assumptions are also being challenged in the pre-G-8 debate. Will good intentions be thwarted by corrupt governments? Can African administrations cope with a surge of increased aid?
"To think you can lift a continent out of poverty with aid is nonsense," Dowden said. "The future of Africa is not going to be decided by rock concerts, but by African politicians making good decisions."
Geldof dismisses those concerns.
"I am withering in my scorn for the columnists who say, 'It's not going to work'," Geldof said. "Even if it doesn't work what do they propose? Every night forever watching people live on TV dying on our screens?"
In fact there are those who argue that doing something for the sake of it can be as damaging as doing nothing. Even the Live Aid concerts 20 years ago, "did harm as well as good," said David Rieff, an authority on humanitarian aid.
"The Live8 phenomenon is part of this Western fantasy of omnipotence," Rieff continued in a telephone interview, "a politically correct version of the imperial impulse to give some money and all will be well, as if the problems of Africa are just the results of our not paying enough attention."
But, Rieff acknowledged, "Live Aid became the prototype for a new kind of celebrity activism - from Richard Gere campaigning for Tibet to the benefit concerts for the Asian tsunami."
Madeleine Bunting, a columnist for the Guardian, wrote recently: "What is an extraordinary phenomenon is the access of celebrities such as Bono and Geldof to almost everyone - presidents, prime ministers, film and rock stars, newspaper editors, television executives, bankers and billionaires."
"Bono's lobbying in the U.S., U.K. and Europe shows how a political and corporate world is hungrily casting around for new sources of legitimacy to bolster its positions - and how celebrities use that vulnerability to advance their cause."
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has put Africa along with global warming at the head of the G-8 meeting agenda, offering a platform to Geldof that, in turn, reinforces his own effort to persuade President George W. Bush and others to loosen their purse strings.
To some, the links with politicians seem too cozy.
In Ireland, Bono has faced criticism from people like Niall Stokes, the editor of the Irish music magazine Hot Press. "Politics and rock and roll don't go together all that well most of the time," he said.
Indeed, said a columnist with the Irish Times, John Waters, "How seriously can you take the narcissistic rock and roll generation about Africa? There's a moral quandary there that's insurmountable."
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