Wednesday, July 05, 2006

[Celebrity Activists] How poverty rocked music

from The Sydney Morning Herald

One year on, the question is being asked whether Live 8, "the greatest show on Earth", changed anything. William Langley reports.

HOW good it all felt a year ago. A bunch of rockers armed with a repertoire of faded hits had wrung an act of transformational statesmanship from world leaders and African poverty was about to be consigned to history.

As the Live 8 line-up launched into action on July 2, you could almost hear the Third World sighing in gratitude.

Today, nothing looks or sounds quite as comforting. Most of Africa is as poor, backward, corrupt and ineptly governed as before. Disease and poverty still kill 50,000 people a day and accounts of war and famine fill the same token slots in newspapers and television bulletins.

But to Bob Geldof, Bono and the other begetters of the big event, none of this need be a cause for despair. Debt has been cancelled in 18 countries and new mechanisms for assisting development put in place. What should alarm the rockers, however, is the steady advance - not least in Africa itself - of the view that their remedy is wrong, and that showering aid on poor countries worsens their plight.

During the past half-century, about $680 billion of Western money has been pumped into the continent, yet most Africans are poorer than ever, with standards of health and education falling steadily behind those in the rest of the world.

Africa's share of world trade has collapsed from 6 to 2 per cent and the notion of aid as an instrument of change is being challenged.

Greg Mills, the director of the Brenthurst Foundation, a leading South African economic think tank, says: "I think Live 8 was a good thing, in the sense that it raised the profile of Africa in a way that it hadn't been raised before in the postwar world. But in doing so it exposed the reality of what has gone wrong - the failures and lack of initiative of African governments.

"I think these lessons are being learnt. There is a new generation of Africans who are uncomfortable with foreign aid. They see that it undermines self-respect, saps initiative, encourages dependency, and creates many of the problems that it is supposed to alleviate."

The aid business is one of the few things in Africa that is booming. Every year, as thousands of the brightest and best-educated Africans flee to work abroad, 100,000 foreign "experts" arrive to hand out Western money. Under last year's Gleneagles pledge, made by the G8 leaders under pressure from Geldof and his supporters, $35 billion in aid will reach Africa by 2010. "It's a great day," proclaimed Geldof as the summit broke up in bear hugs. "We estimate that as a result of what happened today 10 million more Africans will be alive in 2010."

Bono told a crowd in Scotland he had given G8 leaders "your permission to spend your money on ending extreme poverty in your lifetimes".

Estimates, promises, calculations, forecasts. These are what governments, the organisations that serve them and the lobbyists who pursue them, deal in. In Africa, things are more complicated.

"I don't think that Live 8 itself changed anything," says Tom Cargill, the Africa program manager of Chatham House, formerly Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "First there is the question of whether the money will actually appear, and, if it does, the bigger question is over what good it will do.

"Aid is not a solution. It works, to a very limited degree, as an emergency support system, but even in doing that it creates other problems. The important part of the Gleneagles deal was the agreement to change trade regulations, and absolutely nothing has happened on that."

Last year's pact proposed wealthy nations would reform trading regulations to give Africa better access to developed markets. Subsidies to domestic producers would be cut and tariffs on Third World imports reduced. Yet with the exception of the United States, virtually no country has fulfilled its obligations.

A further plan was for funds to be created for the improvement of Africa's infrastructure. The World Bank was handed prime responsibility for this, and gave the job to its "Enhanced Integrated Framework for Trade Related Technical Assistance". Since then the initiative has stalled - bogged down by limited funding, and demands from African governments for more say in spending.

Confusion surrounds the true amount given since the summit. The G8 claims an extra $28.5 billion has gone to the poorest countries. This figure, though, is hotly contested, with the charity Oxfam calculating that only $6.8 billion is "real" money, with the rest resulting from debt cancellation in Nigeria and Iraq.

All this might reasonably be characterised by Geldof and co as typical of what slippery politicians do when the audience has gone home. And, in a sense, they would be right, for Gleneagles was as much a media event as a summit, and many of its announcements were packaged to please the leaders' domestic audiences. Yet in frustrating those whose prescription is for aid, aid and more aid, the G8 may be doing more good for Africa than it realises.

One bright spot on the African horizon is the growing realisation that the continent's problems are of its own making and that only Africans can solve them.

In a blistering attack on the thinking behind Live 8, Moeletsi Mbeki, the deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs and the brother of the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, warned Geldof of "a real danger that far from combating poverty in Africa you are making things worse".

He said: "You do not understand the core problem. If you want to end poverty in Africa, you must treat the disease, not the symptoms. That disease is the shocking lack of accountability afforded towards the African people by those who rule them. The truth of Western aid is that for every pound, dollar and euro that finds its way to the needy, another is propping up corrupt governments such as Robert Mugabe's in Zimbabwe."

Mbeki's is far from a lone voice. While African leaders have traditionally blamed colonialism and exploitation for the continent's woes, a poll conducted by Voluntary Service Overseas found that most ordinary Africans blame those same leaders.

From this overdue appreciation of the problem are spreading faint signs of hope. In a few African countries, governance and economic performance are beginning to improve - albeit from abysmally low levels. Nigeria is making serious efforts to fight corruption and has gained its first international credit rating; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the new President of Liberia, says that her ministers must, as a condition of their appointment, open their private finances to public scrutiny; Benin, the first black African country to democratically change government, has held its fourth multi-party election.

Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society, and a prominent critic of the aid lobby, says: "Economic growth is what will really help Africa, and there is no evidence that aid gives you that. The trouble with something like Live 8 is how you follow through when it's over. What is changing Africa are things like the mobile telephone and the demand for raw materials from China. These are the things that give you a basis for development."

Cargill agrees. "What builds a society is faith in its future. If you are a Ugandan and you think, 'OK, this place is still going to be here in 10 years, and it will probably be better than it is now', then you might invest your money and your talent in it."

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