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With a song in their heart and not much at all in their heads


How is a sensible person to react to last night’s Live 8/G8 extravaganza? It defies hyperbole. It steamrollers scepticism. The money swilling, the masses migrating, the greenhouse gases combusting, the publicity bingeing, are beyond all reason.
Live 8 claims political status, but the politics is totalitarian, using celebrity to mobilise a crowd. The crowd has a noble place in politics, but it is a transient one. Tomorrow it is gone and its punch leaves no bruise. Small wonder Tony Blair is playing Pope Innocent to Bob Geldof’s Francis of Assisi. He co-opts him into power.

Geldof is to fast politics what McDonald’s is to fast food. He is simply good at it. How can you do nothing, he screams, “watching people live on TV, dying on our screens!”. Fill up on McCartney and Madonna and you will feel much better.

Thus in the 1960s did students donate their virginity to Oxfam. Thus in 1969 did John Lennon and Yoko Ono stage a week-long “bed-in for peace”. Critics were dismissed as “for war”. Now they are for dead babies. Nothing changes.

Live 8 is clearly an echo of Live Aid, Geldof’s money-raising spectacular for Ethiopian famine in 1985. Live Aid was a spontaneous response to what television presented as a crisis. Its outcome has been hotly debated, most recently by David Rieff in this month’s Prospect magazine. Showering money, trucks and food on Mengistu’s Ethiopia entrenched a vicious regime and aided one of the most cruel forced migrations in history. Ethiopia was never short of food.

Live 8 seems to acknowledge this critique. The £20m it raises will go not on poverty but on itself. Not a penny will go to Africa. Indeed a potential fundraising opportunity, which might at least have bought a planeload of anti-Aids drugs, has become an exhibition of high-tech media co-ordination and a celebrity fiesta. Geldof has given up on money. He rephrases Lennon’s “All you need is love” as “All you need is awareness”.

All this asks to be taken seriously as politics. So let’s do so — and as more than background schmooze for Blair’s G8 spectacular at Gleneagles. The G8 is not a decision-making body but a “conversation” between rich nations. It has no constitution and no executive. The United Nations, not the G8, is the proper forum for collective action onworld poverty.

Targeting the G8 is in truth a hangover from 1960s left-wing agitprop, which held that the evils of the world were due to capitalism and colonial exploitation. Conventional wisdom was to dump the West’s surplus savings and produce on Africa, and then to wail when the continent was predictably corrupted. At a rough estimate some $500 billion was tipped into Africa over the past 40 years. Most observers maintain this contributed to political instability and a negative growth rate.

Geldof disagrees. He is a big-time interventionist. He claims legitimacy not by democratic mandate but by the dubious franchise of rock concert attendances. He tells his audiences that they do not need to give money or think. They can feel better just by chanting a mantra like monks. Awareness is self-defining. It accepts no responsibility for any political outcomes. Blame is transferred to elected politicians.

Buried behind these antics are two strongly contrasting arguments. Live 8’s demand is apparently that governments should up the Sixties game and assume the mantle of global welfare. Voluntary giving to charity should become compulsory. The humanitarian urge should be nationalised. In addition, outcomes do not matter. Geldof is quoted in the International Herald Tribune as claiming that something must be done “even if it doesn’t work”. For him, doing something useless even if harmful is a moral advance on doing nothing.

On this argument it does not matter if the West merely gives money to power. Too bad if it distorts markets, inflates currencies and depletes incentives. Too bad if, as an IMF report suggested last week, aid does not lead to higher growth in most of Africa and possibly the reverse. In Ethiopia Geldof appeared to agree. Aid must somehow trickle down from power to poor. Hence the continued demand to “double aid”. It is like the Pentagon strategy for bombing Iraq. Some of it must hit a target.

The second argument responds to this implied criticism by demanding that aid be “smart”. It should be conditional on countries engaging in political and economic reform, as according to George Bush. Aid should go only to those who mean to help themselves. Africa should be a continent on workfare. There should be no subsidies to corruption. Aid is a tool of the global democratic crusade.

Thus one speaker last week demanded that debt relief — aid by another name — should depend upon monitored elections, anti-corruption courts and “green” audits. All this would need the revival of Africa’s old ruling class, the unemployed offspring of Europe’s rich. The Lugard tradition of Britain’s indirect imperialism returns as expatriate NGOs in white 4x4s.

I go along with neither argument. Yet my response is unlikely to be heard amid the din. If $500 billion has done Africa more harm than good, how can doubling it possibly do more good than harm? We know that aid induces dependency. The idea of aiding only those governments of whose policies we approve is what happens when charity is nationalised. It denies the humanitarian imperative, which by its nature is ad hoc and personal.

Helping only those that help themselves is a contradiction in terms. A child dying on television may be distressing, but children are dying “off television” the world over. Western peace of mind may be a worthy goal of policy, but it cannot justify a new age of imperialism in Africa.

I hear Geldof screaming again, “So what would you do? Just let them effing die?” I reply that, if I know of people dying, I will try to save them through charity. But if Geldof and his friends want to play politics, showing demagogic muscle means nothing. His revellers must join in the democratic debate and engage with a complex argument. The exploitation of “just in time” protest is no alternative to formal democracy. A Live 8 ticket is not a vote. Make poverty history is a cliché, not a programme.

Relieving debt is a mixed blessing for poor countries since it damages their access to new investment. I would certainly cancel much of it, since its giving was as corrupt as its receiving. But debt relief has been progressing with no need of four-letter words or a heavy drum-and-bass line. Cancellation should not now be a back door for political intervention.

I have no trouble giving private charity at the point of need. Live Aid was at least an honest, if politically naive, response to disaster. Today Geldof’s head has been turned by politics. He makes no appeal for Darfur relief in Sudan. He has not even selected a “quick-win” objective such as Aids.

Over the next three years some £15 billion is needed for anti-retroviral drugs in Africa. While Geldof bills and coos with Blair on television this week, will he mention that this gigantic sum is exactly what Blair intends to blow on a single, useless ID computer? The quickest salve to poverty in Africa is entirely within reach of Britain’s exchequer. For the cost of an equally useless NHS computer, Blair could conquer malaria as well.

Nor do I have trouble with reforming western trade to make it fair and less a sanction on African economies. But this requires complex bilateral deals with individual states. It means treating them as autonomous partners who can accept sovereign responsibility, not as Geldof’s lumpen mass of starving blacks.

Yet there is no Live 8 concert in Brussels or on the sugar beet prairies of East Anglia.

Nor will Live 8 plead with the NHS to stop its most vicious sanction, the poaching of a third of Africa’s qualified doctors and nurses. Such action is too close to reality for Geldof’s musicians. The politics Live 8 does not do is the politics of painful choices.

What we see is another chapter in an old story, glibness triumphing over thought and the rich yearning for excuses to impose their values on the poor. We know we cannot “make poverty history”. This week we are trying to make it geography. Perhaps, just for once, we should make it economics.