Note of the caption: Make Poverty History project, related information available on www.makepovertyhistory.org; merchandises are available here.
2005 was supposed to be the year of Africa. Tony Blair committed Britain to ambitious targets on aid and debt relief. Museums staged major exhibitions dedicated to the continent's art. And one of the biggest popular movements ever - spurred on by a very big pop concert - called on eight world leaders in a Scottish hotel to make poverty history. But what, in the end, did it all achieve? Bob Geldof looks back on a year of 'world-saving bollocks' and argues that whatever his critics say, we really did change
Wednesday December 28, 2005
The reappointed German development minister shook her purple-dyed hair. "The Floyd ..." she managed, her tone hushed with awe. "Amazing. I never thought ... How did you ever get them together again?" Her voice trailed off into reverie. Her officials, too, shook their heads in shared wonder.
"Eh, minister," I slurped between my spoonfuls of delicious soup 'n' sausage. "What do you think the German position will be on the EU Doha proposal? And can you also give us some insight into your new government's position on the Gleneagles aid commitments?"
"Annie Lennox," the minister murmured. "Oh my God. The passion ..."
Two weeks ago the new German government reiterated its support for the Gleneagles G8 commitment. The French government set in, train the facility that will allow it to raise new funds to pay for its share of Gleneagles. And the Norwegian parliament passed into law the British proposal for an international finance facility that will raise new funds for universal immunisation throughout Africa, a key piece of the G8 promise. Last week the G8 debt deal was ratified by the IMF board and Europe agreed a process for holding itself accountable to its aid promises.
Thus the world changes. Or can be changed. If you want to change it.
The politics of emotion can take you only so far. All the tears in the world have never kept a human being alive. Practical action does that. Cash and politics. Charity and justice. Morality and realpolitik. Oil and water.
But if you are going to do it, if you are serious, deadly earnest - sick of the nightly pornography of poverty trailed pruriently across our teatime television screens, aware through long, tiring experience of the shortcomings of human pity and sympathy, and if you believe that poverty is unnatural in a world of unsurpassed wealth - then it becomes incumbent upon you to try to change it if you can; to recognise that ultimately poverty is political, and therefore you must engage with the process as it is. Not as you imagine it to be, or as you would wish it to be, or even as you think it should be - but as it is. You must engage with the power and the persons and institutions and methods that wield that power. It can be a tiresome process, but ultimately that is irrelevant if that person you saw last night on the television can just stop hurting for one second. If that child is allowed a future. If that mother would just stop crying for her lost children.
There are those who will stand outside the tent peeing in, there are those who will be inside the tent peeing out - and then there are the others who will stand inside the tent peeing on the ground where they stand. And the reason for that is simple. Sometimes, by being momentarily allowed inside the tent, you can help to change it. By peeing so wantonly, so copiously, you can stink the place up so much that they want you out - at a reasonable price. Sometimes you can harness the process, to do the unassailable good. And sometimes - rarely, but sometimes - it delivers. That happened this year in our country, and we should be proud.
It's been a good year for Africa. At least, given the criminally low norm, better than any in the past. Gleneagles delivered, in Kofi Annan's words, "the greatest summit for Africa ever". President Obasanjo of Nigeria, speaking at the UN, called it the "great leap forward". World Bank and Nobel-winning development economists hailed it as the first serious attempt to deal strategically with structural poverty in Africa. Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, called it "stupendous". All of this may or may not be true; that remains to be seen. But what is clear is that given the disgraceful results of September's UN summit, called to discuss progress on its own millennium development goals that it turns out were hardly mentioned, and the equally pathetic mewling and sniping that constituted debate at the Hong Kong trade negotiations earlier this month, Gleneagles glows even brighter by comparison. Whatever it was, one thing it clearly was not was a "disaster for the world's poor", as one Dave Spart-like "activist" hilariously called it.
Gleneagles agreed to 50 of the 90 proposals outlined in the report by the Commission for Africa, set up by Blair to recommend how Britain should take a lead on the issue. Some, I'm told, have written that there was no intellectual underpinning to Live8. Well, I sort of think, "They're poor, they don't have to be, let's stop it," seems adequate, but since I persuaded the prime minister to analyse the economic decline of Africa for the 21st century and come up with an achievable political and economic plan to finally stop it, and since he then put together some of the smartest and most powerful intellectuals, politicians, academics and businesspeople from the G8, Africa, China and elsewhere to do just that, and since I sat on that commission for almost a year, and since it produced a radical document that was praised by experts, analysts and activists alike, and since Blair bravely accepted it as UK policy for our G8, and since it therefore became the de facto political and intellectual underpinning of the entire bloody project, and since it is available in every bookshop in all its 500 page detail or in a more readable Penguin paperback or a schools edition or online and was heavily discussed in all newspapers ... what the jaysus are they crapping on about?
But what did Live8 actually achieve? Primarily by its size, ambition and support, in raising the single greatest lobby for a political platform ever achieved, it forced on the top table of world politics a hitherto economically unacceptable package of benefits for the poor of Africa. Africa was the focus of the entire year that began with the formation of the Commission for Africa, using the opening shot of the Band Aid 20 record to alert a generation unborn when we began all of this 20 years ago. In 1985, because of the political deadlock of the cold war, we could only deal with the symptoms of deadly impoverishment: famine, illness, dislocation, orphans etc. But now we could begin to address the structures of poverty: politics, economics, infrastructure, capacity, governance; the things that in theory should prevent the former.
Dull gruel, but still, it seemed something a new generation in the UK was prepared to try. The Make Poverty History (MPH) coalition brought together 60-odd agencies, development geeks of all shades and opinions, and a solid core of the big, serious NGOs, a sprawling assemblage of intent that began to gather a vast army of co-campaigners around the world.
I had thought that once Blair had been forced to adopt the Commission for Africa proposals as UK policy, and with the formation of the MPH coalition and the commitment of the BBC to broadcasting 42 programmes in or about Africa, that that would be it. Here was the policy, the lobby, and through the television, the means to spread understanding of this sublime continent in whose name we were acting. But it wasn't.
During discussions about the comprehensive spending review, which determines UK expenditure, Brown and then Blair suggested we would "eventually" arrive at a figure for overseas aid of 0.7% of our budget. This was a great breach of faith as they had promised a specific date, equal to the French commitment of 2012, and now they were dodging it. I (self-importantly) huffed and puffed and castigated B 'n' B for their "guff and grandiose schemes". Hurt feelings, massive protests, letters of outrage - and they announced 0.7% by 2013.
But if this was happening here, nothing was happening elsewhere. The British negotiators of the G8, the "sherpas", told me almost on a daily basis they were getting nowhere. The MPH coalition was planning what would turn out to be a massive rally in Edinburgh. But MPH seemed to be making minimal political impact outside the UK.
Bono and Richard Curtis had been nagging me to do a Live Aid 2, but I didn't want to. I thought we'd done enough. I didn't know if I had the necessary will or energy any more. It wears you out and down in every sense. And any repeat of Live Aid could never match the original that had proved so powerful in memory.
What changed my mind was the bleak picture that the sherpas drew as the spring wore on and as Bush seemed immune to the prime minister's blandishments. Bono had told Condoleezza Rice that he would get 10,000 kids to ring the White House every night of U2's US tour. Rice calmly replied that the White House "could take the calls". It was clear that something huge had to be done so that it became politically impossible to refuse us. Something that would affect the capitals of all these leaders, that would start their national media discussing the subject and in turn would get their electorate saying, "Why don't you do something?"
Sir Michael Jay, who led the British negotiating team, has said publicly that without Live8 there could have been no deal. That the entire tone of discussion changed as each concert, in each capital, was announced.
Gleneagles delivered precisely the aid increase asked for in the Commission for Africa report. A doubling of aid from $25bn to $50bn in graduated steps until 2010, when there will be a review towards a potential doubling again to 2015. Anyone who tells you they would have believed that possible a year ago is a liar. Anyone who tells you the leaders should have done more is probably right, but that wasn't the view of many of my African colleagues on the Africa Commission. Their point was that the African economies, infrastructure and capacity are so weak that the continent, tragically, could not initially absorb more than what was asked. The point is the G8 did what was asked. And the truth is that they did it cos we did it.
The G8 also finally agreed to cancel - not relieve but cancel - the unpayable debt of 18 of the poorest countries to the IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank. This was Brown's initiative, with Tony Blair calling in favours from George Bush, whose officials had championed debt cancellation but who initially wanted it done without additional financing. Two days before Live8, when it was clear there would be a million people on the streets of Philadelphia, Bush announced a new initiative on malaria and confirmed America's commitment to double aid to Africa.
All of this sounds great, but what does it mean in human terms? Well, it's vast. But the caveat is that having promised these initiatives, they must now be realised and delivered. Blair, seemingly as jaded as the rest of us by all these highfalutin commitments, made the assembled leaders sign their Gleneagles Communiqué, thus in effect turning it into a contract. These commitments must be rigorously monitored and reported on. A promise by the powerful to the weak is the most solemn and binding oath one can make, for to break it is to kill the vulnerable. And we've had quite enough unnecessary dying already.
One thing that gives me confidence that we can force the G8 to keep these promises is the strong social, cultural and political legacy of this year. Live8 was like a steroid injection. The One campaign in the US has been super-sized. It now has 2 million activists signed up, regularly writing to Bush and to Congress. The Canadian Make Poverty History campaign doubled in size in a few hours during Live8; 250,000 Canadians are targeting candidates in the January election there. In Japan, this kind of campaigning is unknown, but 4 million people are now wearing the white band there. There are now campaigns in more than 80 countries. In the UK, all the major parties are now formally committed to 0.7% and David Cameron has made "fighting global poverty" one of his six priorities.
When these promises are achieved, this will be what happens. Five million more people will be alive every year; 20 million more children will go to school; 6 million Africans will get anti-Aids drugs within the next five years; 600,000 children who would have died from malaria annually will live; a staggering 280 million will be free of debt slavery for the first time in their lives.
Isn't that beyond fantastic? Isn't that extraordinary? And precisely because the consequences are so enormous, it must be made to happen.
Trade was never on the agenda for Gleneagles. The sherpas had such a difficult time trying to negotiate the aid and debt deal that they simply had no time to deal with the complex wrangling on trade. Despite that, the commission was clear on the key issue of trade. It called for an end to rich countries' agricultural subsidies and endorsed the core demand of Make Poverty History and the Trade Justice Movement, that rich nations must not use aid to force African economies to open up to major multinationals, against whom weak economies could not compete. This broke new ground.
Of course, unlike with aid and debt, all of this is verbal piety - and if they meant it at Gleneagles, why didn't they do something about it in Hong Kong, where rich countries served up thin gruel for the poor? Africa has only 1% or 2% of world trade. It is incapable of competing and possesses no threat to the other 98%. It should be considered differently and engaged in an exercise of economic positive discrimination.
But by now you will be bored. You will have noted that all I have talked about is policy. What about the gig? The bands? That brings me to one of the criticisms directed at me - that there were no black or African acts on the bill.
This, while well meaning, displays a lack of understanding of the whole campaign. It was not a concert; it was a campaign. It was not a cultural event; it was a political device. It was not about music; it was about poverty. Live8 was not a celebration of Africa, or a presentation of its culture to the rest of the world. Others can do that. That is not my interest. In a world that has never been wealthier, my interest is stopping people dying because they are simply too poor to stay alive.
To change political policy you have to create a giant lobby for change. To get to the greatest number of people around the world, we had to use the biggest selling artists in the world, nationally and internationally. For all their great musicianship, African acts do not sell many records. People wouldn't watch. Networks wouldn't take the concert. Live8 is nothing to do with my personal preferences in music; the issue is too important to be left to musical indulgence - mine or anyone else's. Death beats culture every time if only on the basis that when everyone dies there's no one around to make culture any more.
Having said that, why didn't those critics watch the Johannesburg concert? It was one of the nine Live8 gigs transmitted internationally and simultaneously. Surely that satisfied their narrow criteria. As for black acts - did no one see the US concert? And how depressing that after an entire year of discussing the issues, some only understood Live8 as a numbers count of black faces.
When I invited my righteously indignant critics to create an event to their liking, in say Regent's Park, and offered to incorporate it into Live8, answer came there none. Indeed, when Peter Gabriel suggested we adopt his Eden Project World Music gig in Cornwall I readily agreed.
Unfortunately, my point is borne out by the fact that 3 million were live spectators to Live8; there were 2,000 in Cornwall. More than 3 billion watched Live8; few saw or watched bits of Cornwall. The Live Aid and Live8 DVDs are the biggest and fastest-selling DVDs ever, now totalling millions of sales; Cornwall has sold a few thousand. That is not to be smug, triumphant or condescending; it is simply to make the point behind my cold, pragmatic thinking around what Live8 was for. If those critics promote an African concert in the future, I wish them well - and can I have some free tickets? But Live8 wasn't and could never be about that.
OK. The other things people said.
An African concert was cancelled in favour of Live8. Not true. We moved the site to where we could get a global feed and allow Mandela to address the world. Which we did and he did.
They said Live8 sponsors included Nestlé, Rio Tinto, BAE Systems. Not true. None of those were involved.
They said George Bush's Millennium Challenge Account ties aid to cooperation in the "war on terror". Not true, as a simple check of the facts would have shown.
They said I instructed the bands not to criticise Blair or Bush. Not true. I couldn't care less what bands say or do.
They said I was forced to bow to pressure for African acts by incorporating the Jo'burg gig and the Eden Project. As I've explained, that's not true either. But let me be very clear: I would never bow to that sort of thing. I would have cancelled the lot rather than indulge in musical correctness.
They say I do all of this stuff for my career. Which one? I'm well-off (touch wood). The business stuff is great, thank you very much. I've just finished a mini-tour with my band, brought out an anthology of solo albums and will make a new record next year. I'm fine, thanks. I get plaudits hurled at me with obscene frequency, so my self is already over-aggrandized enough. No, I genuinely could do without all the grief, the numbing boredom of the endless briefings, reports, meetings, abuse, stats, smarming, word-watching, tie-wearing, brown-nosing and general crap that goes with all this "world-saving" bollocks. The thing is, I don't know why or how, but I can do this stuff. And in being able to do it, it would be the most grotesque irresponsibility to then turn away and write another song or something. It is unimpeachably boring - but somehow it works.
Behind all of this bitter carping is the corrosively cynical view that none of this works. That because they, as critics, do nothing, nobody else should even try. Well, they're wrong. You can alter policy. The individual is not powerless in the face of either political indifference or monstrous human tragedy. Let me say it embarressedly, cornily, almost guiltily. Let me try to say it without sounding like some pious twat. You can change the world. And millions upon millions of you did that this year. This stuff works. Sometimes.
Blair and Brown should get praise for an incredible achievement. They personally wanted this to happen. They were committed to it. They expended political capital and took big risks. They did their job and they did it well, whatever other stuff you may agree or disagree with. This one is down to them and to the UK in general. I don't believe it would have happened elsewhere.
It seems that at last the original proposition I articulated 20 years ago, that to die of want in a world of surplus was not only intellectually absurd but morally repulsive, has been utterly agreed with by a towering majority, and reluctantly accepted by the leaders of the rich world. That, ultimately, is what happened this year. It is clear that the majority of people of the world who participated in the greatest civic movement ever created through Make Poverty History and Live8 did begin the process of ending structural and endemic poverty in Africa. It's a small beginning for sure, but it has begun.
But I'll end with this truth. Although I am exhausted and bone weary in every sense, all of those 20 years of boring you and myself to death about this stuff would have been worth it for a single life. For just one person, it's been worth it - Birhan Woldu. When we saw that little scrap of humanity on The Cars' film 20 years ago during Live Aid, when we saw that silent scream, the soundless agony of that tiny thing, when the phone lines collapsed with pity for her - and then to see her now, beautiful, dignified, elegant, intellectual, dynamic, hopeful; a young woman worried about passing her agricultural exams on the Live8 stage, then I really, properly mean this: all of it was worth it for just her. For that single life. And in her is everything every person is and can be and must be allowed to be, and therefore every death, every loss is a great loss, an incalculable loss, a diminishment, an impoverishment.
This year, all of you started keeping 5 million Berhan people in east Africa alive. Not bad. Not bad at all.