If Bob Geldof Cannot Even Write a Hit Song, How Can He Save Africa?

I was just about to comment on the upcoming G8 Summit and the hypocrisy of Bob Geldof who has been filling the air waves with his inane pleas for more aid to Africa. Then I came across the op-ed below, by Simon Jenkins, which says exactly what I had been hoping to express about the issue.

Aid sounds mighty nice, but it’s trade that feeds Africa
simon jenkins (In London’s Sunday Times)

To use the language of the “new” G8, I cannot get my head round next month’s summit at Gleneagles. Ostensibly it is running true to form. G8 summits have become a cynic’s byword for extravagance, platitude and glitz. But since Tony Blair unofficially signed up Bob Geldof as “G9”, the summit’s objective seems to have changed.

It is no longer to combat world poverty directly but to “raise awareness”. Since this can be defined in terms of airtime and column inches, a summit succeeds by doing what it anyway does best. The more it spends on itself, the more likely the target is met. The G8 is the New G8, with built-in cynicism deflection.

These gatherings are 30 years old this year. They were founded by the French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in 1975 as “library chats” between the heads of rich first-world governments. There would be no aides present and agendas would be ad hoc. By keeping meetings small and informal the exalted could commune “above the level of petty bureaucratic concerns”. Like Giscard’s doomed exercise in European constitution-building, things soon got out of hand. The group of five became eight. Canada was included but China, India and anyone black or brown were out.

Today the G8 outstrips Henry VIII’s Field of the Cloth of Gold in extravagance and posturing. Informality has vanished. Host nations spend lavishly on hospitality and call it “showcasing”. Officials are told to draft statements of stupefying emptiness. Favoured topics include free trade, energy conservation, climate change and, from some sense of shame, poverty. The last has predominated, as George W Bush curtly remarks, “as long as I have been president”.

Locations have been made ever more inaccessible to protect delegates from infuriated demonstrators. In 2000 the Japanese held a summit “to discuss world poverty” at a cost of £500m on Okinawa. The same theme was proposed for the most outrageous summit, Genoa in 2001, when Silvio Berlusconi regaled delegates with submarine protection, athletic masseurs, three tenors and £10m of security per head. The mob howled on the quayside and were beaten up by the carabinieri.

This so terrified the Canadians that in 2002 they decided to discuss world poverty deep in the Rocky Mountains. It was there that Blair felt the “hand of history” upon him. He had decided to “halve world poverty within a decade” and would start with Africa. When Blair talks about poverty today we should remember that this is his sixth successive bite at the cherry. The exploitation of global misery to justify a politico/celebrity extravaganza is global diplomacy at its most obscene.

Gleneagles is reportedly costing even more than Genoa, £12m a head in security. So paranoid are delegates that £50m is being spent on policing alone. Nine million pounds is going on moving, feeding and sleeping eight delegates “informally” for just three days. You need not be a rabid leftwinger to find these sums inexcusable.

This year’s gimmick is that the G8 will “incorporate its critics” by half-welcoming Bob Geldof’s music festival. Blair is now travelling the world on a pre-conference jaunt with celebrity endorsements from Madonna, Sting, Bono, Elton John, Ms Dynamite, Mariah Carey and a million wristbands. He has a backing track being rehearsed in London, Philadelphia, Berlin, Paris and Rome. Who says G8 is not reaching out? Nor does Geldof even mean to raise money, apart from the £1.6m he must give Prince Charles for evicting his charities from Hyde Park on July 2. He need only show airtime to meet his awareness target. Never say the British, led by the Irish, cannot do chutzpah.

The rich world has thus attained nirvana. The Good Samaritan need no longer cross the road. He need only be “aware” and cry, “Hey man, wow, right on!” The G8 and Geldof have accepted Margaret Thatcher’s exegesis: the real point of the biblical parable is that the Samaritan had to get rich first.

The meat in this beanfeast is supposedly supplied by Gordon Brown. His contribution is to repackage the familiar summit trio of aid, debt relief and trade preference. But which? The classic test of any discussion of world poverty is which takes centre stage.

Aid — Geldof’s “just give us the f****** money” — has become discredited, for reasons that run through Blair’s mostly admirable Commission for Africa report. The Americans have balked at offering more since they already give $7.5 billion and claim to prefer outcomes to inputs. I have some sympathy. The days are gone when the West sees any point in pouring money into Africa with no way of ensuring it is well spent. Blair’s pledge to “double aid in 10 years” is meaningless targetry. Nor have decades of bellyaching about corruption done any good. Why should an African leader promise elections in return for aid to his poor? Elections give someone else the Geneva bank account.

Debt relief is more complex. Brown’s idea of waiving it for tsunami states vanished when the states realised they might lose credit thereby. His pet international finance facility has been scaled down but remains debt by another name. Nor has anyone come up with a way of ensuring that relieving debt really helps Africa’s poor rather than its rich.

Debt certainly cripples the so-called Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, but Gleneagles is not needed to progress the existing British/American relief plan. The best way to help these states is not to press them into further debt, which is what Brown seems to propose. It is to help Africans repay their borrowing themselves.

Which brings us to trade. If the G8 really cares about world poverty, it will avoid Gleneagles and meet instead on a Glasgow dockside. There delegates will watch the unloading of a cargo of sugar, rice, fruit, cotton and coal from the Third World. Afterwards they will sail out into the Clyde and witness the ceremonial sinking of a ship crammed with their own surpluses, about to be dumped on African markets. That is not dumb awareness-raising. It is really tackling world poverty.

For the past six years the G8 has been preaching relief yet maintaining vicious trade sanctions against Africa and Asia. It has denied them markets for their produce and flooded them with surpluses. At this very moment, millions of tons of subsidised European and American sugar and cotton are being dumped on Africa, destroying local industries and impoverishing populations. This has nothing to do with corruption or lethargy or “ungovernable Africa”. It is economic warfare by the G8 against the poor.

The best thing Gleneagles could do is announce not another fancy aid package but a revival of Britain’s old imperial preference. This means more than debating the EU’s partnership agreements, promising to buy specific goods from specific poor countries and not dump on them in return. It means actually implementing such agreements. Yet I see from the spin that Britain is downplaying trade in favour of yet more aid and debt relief. The reason, I fear. is simple. Pledging taxpayers’ money costs politicians nothing. Since the pledge is seldom honoured, it also barely costs the taxpayer.

Trade is a different matter. It means confronting lobbies, upsetting producers, withdrawing subsidies. It means doing, not talking. Its benefits are seen not on western television but in the markets of Lagos, Accra, Abidjan, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam. That is why trade reform has no purchase on the White House, Brussels or the Blair/Geldof agenda. Aid is sexy. It makes its recipients dependent and its donors feel good. There is a neo-imperialist streak in the Make Poverty History movement. Trade is mercantile and often “unfair”. It is always scrutinised for a boycott.

If Blair is serious about “tackling world poverty” he should devote his present junketing to one objective, to a crash programme of preferential, bilateral trade deals with poor countries. This is the only action that offers a robust and lasting cure to world poverty. If, as seems certain, Blair finds all ears deaf to this demand, he has one recourse. He should cancel Gleneagles as pointless. He should send the £100m it will cost straight to Oxfam and present a urgent trade preference bill to parliament. If he and Geldof really need to bask in each other’s glory, they can stage an annual rally in Trafalgar Square naming and shaming the countries that refused at Gleneagles to take poverty seriously. All else is flam.


About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

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