The Great Live 8 Debate

It's official, again. People suck.

You give them free tickets to a concert for a good cause and they try to sell them on eBay for hundreds of dollars. You organize eight kick-ass shows around the world and they complain that the lineup is too white, too commercial, too whatever. You call attention to one of the modern world's deepest sources of shame --a continent pillaged for centuries, now left to fester -- and they criticize you for being negative. They accuse you of grandstanding, of heaving your aging rocker's carcass back into the spotlight for one last pitiful boogie with fame.

If I were Bob Geldof, I'd go live in a cave after all this Live 8 business is over with. July 7 would be a good day to leave. By then, the free concerts that Geldof organized in London, Cornwall, Philadelphia, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Johannesburg, Tokyo and Toronto will be over. The Long Walk to Justice will have come to an end, culminating in hordes of people arriving on July 6 in Edinburgh, 20 miles from Gleneagles, where the leaders of the eight richest countries in the world are gathered for their annual summit July 6-8. The strains of Dido and Travis will have died out in Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium. The headaches will be over. Geldof can listen to results of the G-8 summit, the impetus for it all, on the transistor radio in his cave, absently finger-combing his unruly, sexy-old-rocker locks.

But Sir Bob, knighted in 1985 for his work fighting African poverty, is undoubtedly too tough, egotistical and committed for that, so he'll probably hang around for the end of the G-8 (which gathers the presidents of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States) before going on back home to London. There, he'll most likely continue doing the kind of work that got him named, alongside Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's seventeen-member Commission for Africa.

That's where the real work has been done; Live 8 is just unofficial publicity for it. The Commission's work has driven Blair's agenda of debt forgiveness, increased aid and better trade terms for Africa, with impressive success so far: the G-8 nations have agreed to write off all $40 billion of debt for Africa's poorest 14 nations and four others in Latin America. In response to the Commission's recommendation to double current aid to sub-Saharan Africa to $50 billion by 2010, Europe has agreed to raise its foreign aid spending to .7 percent of GNP, though Washington stubbornly refuses to budge from the .15 percent range.

People like to sneer at rock stars like Geldof and Bono, another crusader for Africa, as dilettantes whose egos have deluded them into thinking they are political forces to be reckoned with. In recent weeks, Geldof's been accused of hubris and megalomania by British politicians, of all people, for inviting Nelson Mandela and the Pope to the concerts. British commentator Peter Hitchens wrote in the Mail that it was in fact Africa's starving children who were rescuing the "sagging reputations" of "balding, clapped-out rock stars." Spiked Online's Mick Hume calls the whole thing "every bit as paternalistic as the old imperialist attitudes."

But from here, it looks like Geldof has rung the bell, musically and politically.

Musically, the nine shows scheduled for July 2 add up to an astounding lineup: the Sex Pistols, Coldplay, Madonna, Scissor Sisters, U2, Green Day, Roxy Music, REM, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, A-ha, The Cure, P. Diddy and Youssou N'Dour are just a few of the luminaries. There were immediate complaints that it was too white an event -- the United Kingdom's Black Information Link called it "hideously white" -- and the fact that most of the big-name African bands are relegated to Cornwall does in fact seem random. Live 8 organizers responded that the goal was simply to get as many big-name stadium-filling acts onstage as possible.

Politically, Live 8 is brilliant. Live Aid, 1985's spectacular charity concert, raised $100 million for Ethiopia, then in the grip of a four-year famine. After that Geldof was done, uninterested in lame follow-ups. But as soon as it became evident that things were conspiring to put Africa on the global stage in 2005, friends wouldn't let Geldof rest. First there was the Commission for Africa, which completed its work in March. Blair planned to use the U.K.'s turn at the head of the G-8, and its shift at the rotating helm of the European Union presidency starting in July, as bully pulpits to promote the Commission's recommendations. This in turn would coincide with United Nations' five-year checkup of the world's progress on meeting the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to end the world's worst poverty in 2015. Politically, it couldn't be a better moment to focus on Africa.

And it also happened that Live Aid's 20th anniversary was coming up. Friends Bono and Richard Curtis (who wrote Notting Hill) hectored Geldof into staging another event -- but Geldof made this one different, and herein lies the genius of Live 8. Twenty years ago, Live Aid was an appeal to individuals to give money, and they did, by purchasing expensive tickets for shows in London and Philadelphia. But this time, the eight concerts are free, the tickets given away by lottery, because Geldof has apparently realized that individual contributions to charity will not haul Africa out of poverty. It's gone way past the point where that can work. Only real political will in the world's richest capitals can do the job. And so Live 8's goal is not to raise cash, though that would help in the short run, but to raise awareness -- political awareness that can translate into political pressure to bring Africa into the family of self-sufficient nations.

"It's about justice, not charity," Geldof says. That represents an awakening on his part, a sophistication that was not in place 20 years ago when he was a conscience-stricken former frontman for the Boomtown Rats who had happened to catch a BBC documentary on Ethiopia on the tube. Band Aid, the group of musicians he gathered to record "Do They Know It's Christmas" in November 1984, was named in humble recognition of the limitations of cash aid. Now Geldof is putting that recognition into action and trying to use his influence to change policy.

That didn't quell his aggravation when Live 8 tickets started turning up on eBay. They were going for as much as $1,800, and Geldof did two things: he encouraged people to bid fake millions for the tickets to stop the bidding, and he bitched at eBay, prompting a firestorm of self-righteous whining after eBay backed down. "[This] may have serious consequences for the long-term shape of the online world," fretted BBC commentator Bill Thompson. "After all, if Geldof can get items removed from aution, who else is going to use this as a tactic in the future?" To which some of us might respond: Who cares?

The standoff had some symbolic import; Geldof refused to accept eBay's offer to donate the auction fees to charity, calling it "filthy money made on the back of the poorest people on the planet -- stick it where it belongs."

Good for him. Anyone who pays attention to what is happening in Africa -- and it's not that easy to keep doing that, because it is awfully depressing -- knows Africa needs it. There are eight U.N. peacekeeping operations in Africa and 15 million people who can't go home because of conflicts. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 300 million people -- about the population of the United States -- live on less than $1 a day. Another 300 million people lack access to clean water. Each year, 1 million African children, one every 30 seconds, die of malaria. Every day, 8,500 Africans contract HIV.

Okay, so this is too negative. There may be good news coming out of Africa about inspiring individuals and the resilience of the human spirit and the incremental victories of stable nations like Botswana and Ghana against AIDS and poverty, but I'm looking at the Human Development Report of the U.N. Development Program, and it tells a different story. The HDR 2004 ranks countries according to a formula that considers life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income. The first African country on the list is Seychelles, number 35, a little-populated tourist mecca and island paradise. The next is Libya, 58 -- oil country. Then there's Mauritius, 64 (island paradise); Algeria, 108 (oil and gas); and so on. Only at 119, South Africa, do you reach one of the continental Sub-Saharan countries that does not enjoy oil wealth -- in other words, a typical African country. And there are only 177 nations on the list. Most of Africa's 54 nations fill the bottom of it.

Live 8 is not going to make Africa whole, but it might start the ball rolling toward a solution. Forgiveness of debt is a start. Increased aid is needed to help get infrastructure, health care, education and agriculture up and running, according to economist and Millennium Goals adviser Jeffrey Sachs. Perhaps most important in the long run, though, is trade. Africa has just 2 percent of the world's trade, and the easing of textile tariffs on China could drain even that small amount by pressuring the infant textiles industry in southern Africa and Uganda. Economists suggest that if Africa could get just 1 percent more of global trade, it would equal $70 billion a year -- almost three times what it gets in annual development aid.

Geldof acknowledges the difficulty of all this, the quixotic nature of believing a handful of rock concerts staged four days before the start of a political summit can change the course of history. But, as he told Reuters, "How do we create domestic heat to pressure them into doing something they don't particularly want to do? We will not get there if we don't do ludicrous circuses like giant concerts ... and stars being rallied."

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