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Learning a Lesson from Live8

Since you’re reading this, I’m pretty certain you’d found it impossible to avoid the week-long wall-to-wall coverage of — Bob Geldof’s pet project to raise awareness for the Make Poverty History campaign (not to mention elicit mass support to convince the G8 leaders to act accordingly at their summit this week). Barely a month after the grand plans were unveiled, Saturday saw almost 24 hours of non-stop music spread over ten stages in cities sprinkled around the globe — from Paris to Tokyo, from Barrie to Berlin, from London to Jo’burg. I must say, it’s amazing that they actually pulled it off.
It’s also more than a little convenient how the event just happens to mark the 20th anniversary of the original Live Aid concerts to raise money to aid the starving in Ethiopia’s dreadful famine… but that’s just me being cynical, isn’t it? Saturday’s worldwide musical blowout was a totally different beast, as Sir Bob was at pains to reiterate. This wasn’t about money, he proclaimed. (Or maybe he said ‘fuckin’ money’. I’m not sure.) This was about raising awareness, about opening our hearts to the tragedy of poverty in Africa.
Slipped in between the rock stars, the statistics came thick and fast. In Philadelphia, Will Smith took to the stage before a crowd one million strong to inform us in gravest tones that a child in Africa dies every three seconds from poverty. And just in case we didn’t get the message, there was an stirringly arty monochrome montage of celebrities clicking their fingers to the three-second beat. (I noted that they didn’t tell us how often an adult dies, but everyone knows adults aren’t important.)
Fifty thousand was another number. Fifty thousand die as a result of poverty, whether directly or indirect, every day throughout the continent. The talking heads missed no opportunity to tell us how we wouldn’t let this stand if this was, for instance, happening in Britain today. Well of course not! If that were ever the case you can be sure they’d get it down to a much more manageable number, one not nearly as arresting: one like, say, the current rate of deaths as a result of poverty in Britain, maybe? I mean, everyone knows only big numbers count; that once you get below a certain threshold, you become invisible.
Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh. I know we can’t solve all the world’s ills at once. But I beg of you to convince me that this concert was all about helping Africa out of the doldrums and not at all about hosting a grand decadent spectacle to give us lucky Westerners the mushy warm feeling of being a part of some great world-changing revolutionary cause — much like twenty years ago when, in the words of The Wire’s David Stubbs, we “appeared to labour under the sort of collective, intoxicating delusion that overcomes any mass of people when they gather together and feeling triumphs over thinking.”
Let me put the following to you: Live8 was supposedly about raising awareness, right? But really, how much more aware can we get? Haven’t we reached awareness saturation at this point? If there is anyone out there in the Western world who still isn’t aware, aren’t they a lost cause by now?
And anyway, will all this awareness, having being so spectacularly raised, lead to any concrete results? Will it provoke middle Americans to vote for a president who will be fair to Africa? Will it provoke any of us to use our democratic power in the polling station and persuade our governments to act in the interest of social justice? Excuse me for being a pessimist, but somehow I doubt it.
I’m not the only one complaining. Events like this do tend to bring out the cranks, like those who gripe that no money was raised by the Live8 concerts. At least that’s what I heard when I was hopping between the news channels on Sunday afternoon. It’s typical of a lack of understanding about the issues involved. What many fail to realise is that money isn’t really a problem for Africa. Pick any typical African state, and odds are its rulers are living in opulence. (And those civil wars? Where oh where do they get all those weapons?) The money is there, all right.
Besides, Africa can count on the West for pretty much all the money it needs — the continent has received more financial aid than anywhere else in the world — but this money, if it does eventually trickle down to those who truly deserve it, merely eases the symptoms of famine and poverty. It doesn’t cure the disease. The G8 leaders can help Africa along the road to health by cancelling the exploitative stranglehold of debt, abolishing protectionism in the name of truly free trade — undoing the master/slave dialectic that has both propped up the West and held back the Third World since the dawn of colonialism. But only Africans themselves can purge their land of the cancers that afflict it. One only has to look at the South African government’s official stance on HIV/Aids or the African Union‘s refusal to act against Robert Mugabe to realise that Africans have a lot of work to do in that regard.
Africans are proud of their land, and rightly so. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Even after hundreds of years of colonial exploitation of its natural resources, it’s heartening that there are still some things that can’t be stolen. You can’t steal Africa’s richness of beauty, its wonder or its magic. It’s an awe-inspiring place, and Africans are right to be proud of it. However sometimes it seems they’re so proud that they will allow themselves to be abused and exploited by their own rather than accept Western assistance. It’s hard to blame them, really — it was the Europeans’ meddling that got them into this mess in the first place. That’s just one of the reasons why, sadly, Mugabe can fiddle while Zimbabwe burns. (Metaphorically speaking, of course, but who knows what the future will bring…)
It goes without saying that the crises in Zimbabwe, Sudan and the sub-Saharan west don’t speak for Africa as a whole. Many parts are prospering thanks to sustainable development. The development projects implemented by non-governmental organisations throughout the continent such as Concern (and Lohada in Tanzania, which Markham helped to set up) are largely welcomed and have given much needed, real hope to the hopeless — but they shouldn’t be necessary, knowing that the ruling governments have the means (but, alas, not the inclination) to do it themselves. While I can’t and won’t dispute that the work NGOs do is commendable and not in any terms a mere hand-out, surely the best aid we could give right now to Africa and to Africans is to prove to them that we know they can make it without our help. If we show respect rather than pity, maybe more Africans will be encouraged to open their eyes see for themselves what’s really going on in their land, beyond the fighting and the drought and the hunger, and do something about it.
Unfortunately for Bob Geldof et al, that’s something Live8 can’t really help with. If there’s anyone who really needs to be made aware by this campaign, it’s Africans themselves. But outside of the Westernised parts of the continent, Live8 means nothing to them.
“I have encountered almost no one [in Uganda] who has either heard of Live8 or G8,” says Channel 4 NewsJon Snow, reporting last week from central Africa. “If you’re thinking global for G8, Live8 and all the razzmatazz, even if this continent is the target,” he says, “forget any idea that anyone knows.”
In contrast, Africans in Britain cannot help but know, but according to The Independent‘s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown they’re disdainful of the knight-in-shining-armour rhetoric:
> [How] did Africans feel about the projection of their continent by Live8? Every Ugandan, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Sudanese, South African, Zimbabwean, Nigerian, Egyptian, Rwandan, Ghanaian, Cameroonian, Tanzanian, Sierra Leonean, and Congolese African I know found Live8 baffling or offensive or naive. They admit that bad governance, historic betrayals and trade handicaps have left their continent trailing behind in the global marketplace. They know they cannot turn this around without Western participation. But they feel humiliated by the image of their wondrous continent as lost and in need of white prophets.
What Africans want is the means to help themselves. Given half a chance, they will, and they’ll thrive at that. The positive developments in Botswana are a testament to this. Yet opportunity has been repeatedly denied to most Africans on two counts: by Western economic policy, and by their own leaders’ corruption. If Live8 can really prompt the G8 leaders to unite to act in the name of social justice, in a way that will end the economic oppression and give Africa something like an equal footing on the world stage, that’s all well and good — but it doesn’t help those Africans who will continute to be oppressed or hoodwinked by their own governments, ruling unchecked. The former is relatively easy to fix; the latter is much more difficult.
As for the rest of us, we need more than just awareness — we need understanding.
“In a way,” Snow reflects, “[Saturday’s] extraordinary event has a telling moral in the pale — Africa is desperately disconnected from the rest of the world.” That disconnection goes both ways. As long as the West persists in infantilising the Third World we will never seek to connect with Africa or with Africans on a human level; we will never respect them as people like us.
Alibhai-Brown speaks of “the terrible virtue and saviour’s certainty, which reveals awareness without understanding.” This view is echoed by Nairobi resident Evans Konya, who spoke to The Independent’s Meera Selva:
> We are not beggars so we don’t need to be treated like that […] Some help with development will be useful but before rich countries send us money, they should take time to truly understand us. There is so much corruption here that funds from overseas often go straight into the pockets of politicians. We must find a way to give aid money directly to the small people. Will the people at this concert understand all that?
Others, though, are more optimistic about Africa’s long-term prospects — like Thivu Mukwevo from Johannesburg who attended the South African Live8 concert (again from yesterday’s Independent):
> This means a lot for Africa, I’m really excited to be watching some of my heroes. For us as Africans, this concert poses questions about what we’re doing to make a contribution. It makes me think perhaps I’m not doing anything positive. The talk all over the world has focused on getting the message to the G8 nations to scrap the debt of the poorest nations but I hope African leaders will be encouraged to act more responsibly. There is no sense in having debt wiped off and the extra resources are not used to help the people, already a few African leaders are letting us down. But there’s no doubt this concert and the event around the world will make a difference to the future well-being of this continent.
It’s voices like these that should have been heard on Saturday, not Coldplay or Dido or Mariah Carey or Madonna, or even Bono. It’s very easy to get in celebrities to attract an audience and let them carry the message — but celebrities are also easy to ignore. “These people will not solve the problem,” argues David Stubbs. “They are the problem.”
“The solution,” Alibhai-Brown writes, “lies with Africans themselves. And with outsiders who love and understand the unbreakable spirit of Africa.” She’s right. Africa doesn’t need our pity. But Africans could do with our support, and our understanding. When it comes to Africa and its people, the West needs a lesson. We need to go back to school. Our wallets are already open for them; let’s open our eyes and our ears as well.

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