A tale of two cities

I promised myself I wouldn’t get too worked up about the pop concert that was happening in London the same time as the 200,000-strong demonstration in Edinburgh, but then you start to read some of the absolutely infruriating imbecilities being batted around about Live 8, like:

Okay, perhaps I’m being harsh, you might say, and cherry-picking the most moronic soundbites, just to prove a point. And you’d be right, because I did. But there’s a more fundamental point – what really was the point of all those concerts yesterday? There’s the defence that they’re not there to raise money (especially as the Hyde Park gig has had to pay off the Prince’s Trust to the tune of ?1.6m for treading on their toes), but to raise “awareness”. But awareness of what? We all know Africa has been pretty fucked over, but how has it come this way? And how can we help Africa out of it? While it might be unfair for me to isolate individual hapless concert-goers and demand they know all the ins and outs, it’s at least reasonable to expect some sort of leadership from those who have organised it, for them to tell us what they feel has gone wrong in Africa and how it can be put right. Well, here’s Bob Geldof’s (and Bono’s and Richard Curtis’) message to the G8 leaders:

“For God’s sake, take this seriously. Don’t behave normally. Don’t look for compromises. Be great. Do more than expected, not the least you can get away with. You know what will really make a difference, what will turn extreme poverty around, what will actually begin to save the lives of millions of men, women and children. Do it. Please do it. The world is watching.”

Thoe first five sentences would not look out of place on a motivational poster in an accountancy firm’s office; the rest is equally vapid. There is nothing, not one single word in the entire letter admonishing past failures of the G8 (or the World Bank, or the IMF) in Africa, not one demand to change existing policy, in fact nothing about what to do at all. The phrase “Make Poverty History” has been turned from an expression of a worthwhile goal into a meaningless mantra. It has been hijacked by a series of millionaire publicity-hungry preening primadonnas who haven’t the wit or talent to do anything but “I know, we’ll organise another fucking pop concert and make ourselves look like angels”, instead of trying to grasp the very real issues that need to be debated.

At the same time as the self-congratulatory love-in in Hyde Park, a Guardian commentator noted about the rally in Edinburgh:

“This is a very strange protest – a mass mobilisation that is essentially in support of government policy to cancel developing world debt and double aid.”

This is the second-most bullshit statement quoted here, after Geldof’s fairy-tale letter. Because as someone who was there, who not only marched but attended the stalls and tents and heard a few of the speeches at the rally, I can say that this was not the case. There was plenty of acknowledgement of all the good action done by the government so far, but also plenty about the good things it hasn’t yet done. People were campaigning against the strings attached to debt relief, such as ruinous privatisation of public utilities. They were calling for further increases in aid, for the outright scrapping of farm subsidies, in the EU and the US, not just gestures at “reform”. There were questions about seed patents, retroviral drugs, clean water, fair trade, protection of capital markets and corruption as well as broader issues such as the environment, the pax Americana and the “war on terror”. While in London people sat back and let Geldof spout half-understood, over-simplified pro-government sentiments at an infantilised audience, in Edinburgh there were plenty of people with the intelligence and the enthusiasm to question such simple gestures and understand the nuances and complexities of the issue, who actually got off their arses and did something about it.

It’s easy to sneer, you might think. But it’s even easier to mouth empty platitudes and remain ignorant of the real problems. Put simply, when it comes to issues like this, good intentions are not good enough. And Bob Geldof is an attention-seeking idiot. But the point about intentions is the more important one.

Partly inspired by this quite good John Harris article on the ‘Dianification’ of the global development movement.

6 thoughts on “A tale of two cities

  1. “While in London people sat back and let Geldof spout half-understood, over-simplified pro-government sentiments at an infantilised audience, in Edinburgh there were plenty of people with the intelligence and the enthusiasm to question such simple gestures and understand the nuances and complexities of the issue, who actually got off their arses and did something about it.”

    Absolutely. The more I think about it the more annoyed I am at Geldof for organising Live8 on the same day as the MPH march in Edinburgh, thus ensuring less coverage and a lower turnout, then shouting at everybody to “get up to to Edinburgh for Wednesday”. Fool.

    He got the headline he deserved from the Daily Express: “Job done”. Er, what exactly is the job? Putting on a mediocre concert or getting trade justice, debt relief and more and better aid? That job is nowhere near done. Saturday in Edinburgh was great, but it’s only the beginning.

  2. The Live8 Concerts were not just an isolated London event. Whereas awareness of the situation in Africa is widespread in the UK, the concerts have been an important GLOBAL method of raising awareness of issues surrounding poverty and trade injustice, particularly in countries such as America. The more complex questions surrounding these issues and strategies for improvement have to come from somewhere; there has to be some initial awareness of the problem for people to want to look into these issues more deeply. As you point out, press coverage of Edinburgh did not necessarily capture what actually happened at the event ? perhaps the press was equally inadequate in their coverage of Live8?

    And accountancy firms don?t need motivational posters. Sheer love of the job is motivation enough ;-)

  3. It’s tricky – a lot of people asked why I was going to Live8. Was it because I cared about Africa or for the music. It was a bit of both actually and I don’t think why people went really mattered. The point of Live8 was the noise it made. Any other Sunday the papers would have been filled with Saskia’s boobs and tales of Maxwell being a “top bloke” with the G8 summit relegated to the inside pages but the press coverage yesterday, today and the preceding week was fantastic & extensive. What was slightly dissapointing was that people were asked to sign the Live8 List (and many did in their millions) but quite why they were signing was not made clear; a vague reference to the three MPH “themes”. I can’t comment on the TV coverage as I haven’t seen it but for the attendees at the concert the message that something must be done was unavoidably powerful. Whatever peoples reasons for going to the concert when they arrived they almost certainly left thinking a little more about poverty and the difference the West could make. That surely is an achievement in itself.

  4. The only thing I can see that was a positive about the Live8 concerts was letting the American people know that their govt was giving less that 1% of GPD as aid, instead of the 10% they’d been lead to believe was the case. Years ago I worked for a fair trade organisation, we were busting a gut publicising african famine cycles and what was needed to do to help break them as we were at the point of thinking that we were getting message across and practices were changing when saint bob turned up with Live aid. His proposals of giving the european food mountains were assinine and ill thought out and in the long term would had undone all the good work we had started. Now after the main aid agencies are getting somewhere on the issue of debt (which in itself is not a problem, even Britian has a national debt) bob ets on his high horse again. As the real campaigners get somewhere with justice in trade campaigns we will no doubt see another huge concert were celebrities will ease their pampered consciences by urging governments to do… just what they had announced they will do. Cynical? Moi?

  5. You’re dead right about the “ruinous privatisation of public utilities”.

    How I yearn for the days when there was a six-month wait to rent a telephone handset designed in the thirties, and gas showrooms had unlisted numbers so that you couldn’t bother their staff by calling them.

    Oh yes those were the days all right.

  6. Whoosh. You’ve missed the point. The privatisation of public utilities in the developed world occurred after decades of public ownership, by which time the infrastructure and technology had been sufficiently developed for there to be existing cheap and universal provision.

    In contrast the privatisation foisted upon developing countries as a condition of aid or debt relief is upon nascent infrastuctures. With control of the supply out of domestic hands (the utility owners are inevitably foreign multinationals) aimed purely with profit in mind, and without public subsidy and mandated universal provision, the result is that while privateers in the West happily enthuse about choice, shiny techologies and the consumer convenience provided by the munificence of the invisible hand, people in Africa are dying in their thousands because they can’t get water that doesn’t have shit in it.

    The pattern is the same for other things too. While Western countries happily employed capital controls, tariffs on imports, ignored international intellectual property agreements and subsidised their domestic industries throughout the twentieth century while their economies (slowly) matured (and still do in some cases), the developing nations are not allowed the luxury of a timely transition into modernity; instead they are being rushed into hyper-capitalism and are left at the mercy of free markets. Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalisation and its Discontents is an excellent (while not overtly political) account of the follies of “shock therapy”.

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