A Bonfire of the celebrities

Bob Geldof

Bob Geldof

THIRTY years ago today (13 July), Irish pop star, Bob Geldof, organised a star-studded concert at London’s Wembley Stadium attended by 72,000 people (another 100,000 fans graced a concert in Philadelphia) to raise funds for Ethiopian famine victims.

“Live Aid” reached 1.9 billion people across 150 countries, and raised 40 million pounds. The concerts followed the release of an equally star-studded song by Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” nine months earlier.

This song talked patronisingly of Africa – with its four majestic rivers, the Nile, Niger, Congo, and Zambezi – as a place “where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow.” Geldof was, in a sense, the pioneer of a new breed of celebrity “missionaries” with his efforts to end the 1985 Ethiopian famine.

Yet, as American journalist David Rieff has noted, despite depictions of this famine as “biblical”, it was also man-made. A Sahelian drought had been exacerbated by Ethiopian autocrat Mengistu’s brutal and misguided agricultural collectivisation policies and forced displacement of 600,000 people. Rieff observed that Geldof’s “Live Aid” funds had contributed to humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Oxfam and Save the Children facilitating these displacements which resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths.

When told about the fatalities, Geldof – who had described “Live Aid” as “almost perfect in what it achieved” – responded that, “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”

Three decades after “Live Aid”, it is clear that celebrity efforts to “save Africa from itself” have often done more to reinforce negative media stereotypes about the continent and portray its one billion citizens as helpless creatures in need of benevolent assistance from western saviours in a new “white man’s burden”.

The Economist, for example, depicted Africa as a “hopeless continent” in 2000 with the photo of a random, gun-totting youth on its front-cover.

Its then Africa editor, Richard Dowden, wrote an equally prejudiced cover story. Often naive celebrities have burnished their own reputations as the new missionaries of a troubled age: Bob Geldof and Bono are seeking to “end poverty”; Angelina Jolie is “protecting” refugees and rape victims; George Clooney is “saving” Darfur’; Sharon Stone is campaigning for mosquito nets; Madonna has adopted children in Malawi as if buying new pets; while Prince Harry is on his way to Namibia to “save” the black rhino.

This cult of celebrity has often led to a dangerous dumbing down of issues, and brushed aside other innovative and resilient grassroots efforts. During the 2005 Group of Eight (G8) industrialised countries’ summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, there was euphoric talk – spurred on by fading Irish rock stars, Geldof and Bono, who organised a “Live 8” concert – about unveiling a “Marshall Plan” for Africa.

There was an almost Alice-in-Wonderland expectation that this club of eight rich men would somehow be swayed by the tuneful ballads of musicians into “saving”Africa.

The Gleneagles accord promised to begin lifting Western export subsidies that harmed African agricultural products; to double aid to Africa up to $50 billion by 2010; and to write off $55 billion of debt involving 14 African countries.

But there was no timetable for eliminating farm subsidies; only about a third of the promised aid was new money; and despite some debt reliefs, most of these pledges have still not been honoured a decade later.

As much as a sixth of aid money ($250 billion) between 2000 and 2012 was spent on administrative costs, debt relief, and hosting foreign students and refugees. In 2013, most donors were still contributing only 0.29% of national income to foreign aid: far below the 0.7% United Nations (UN) target set 45 years ago.

During the Live 8 concert which coincided with the Gleneagles summit, Geldof’s stubborn refusal to include African singers on the lily-white stage was breathtakingly insensitive.

The blacks wheeled out as props were famine victims and schoolchildren in a drama in which whites remained the main actors in another African “tragedy”. A memorable image was etched indelibly in my mind when Bono and Geldof spoke confidently on behalf of Africa’s poor, even as Kenyan Nobel peace laureate and environmental campaigner, Wangari Maathai, stood mute behind them.

A documentary titled “Geldof in Africa” (from which a book was published) depicted the pop star waltzing around Ethiopia in a hat and scruffy clothes, mouthing banalities about “Africa” and “modernity” having encroached on the continent. The fact that two rock stars are at the forefront of these campaigns is the clearest sign, if any were needed, of the poverty of genuine leadership on these issues.

Geldof incensed his fellow campaigners by arrogantly awarding the Gleneagles summit “10 out of 10” on aid, “8 out of 10” on debt, and “a serious and excellent result on trade”, before dismissing critics as a “disgrace”.

Spewing ignorant hyperbole, the Irish singer more recently declared that Gleneagles had “helped pave the way for a new world order.” The fanciful claims of this musical Pinocchio, however, clearly belong more in the realm of fairytale.

As the Ebola crisis unfolded in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea last year, Geldof recorded “Band Aid 30” for yet another cause, singing that “there is no peace and joy in West Africa”.

Amid the new missionary age spawned by “Live Aid”, it is important to remember that Africa is a diverse continent of 55 countries that has made progress in several areas largely through its own exertions.

Africans have calmed long-running conflicts in Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, though other brushfires remain; civil society activists have courageously fought for democratic freedoms in Benin, Zambia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Burkina Faso; ruling parties have been voted out of office in Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Nigeria.

Africa’s Diaspora now contributes $60 billion annually to their home countries which is more than the continent receives in foreign aid; and Africa’s youthful population of one billion consumers will provide an important future market, as the massive growth of the lucrative cell-phone industry has demonstrated.

Africa certainly needs to seek partners in a globalised world, but it may be time to light a bonfire of vanities for the celebrity-missionaries who want to save us from ourselves. •Dr Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa.

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