Live 8: Legitimizing the Oppressor

by Aly Wane

Abdulai Darimani, an activist from Third World Network (TWN) : Africa. The TWN is one of the many vibrant African civil society organizations pressuring the G8 for just, equitable economic treatment.

"It is like being offered a handkerchief by the same person who is beating the hell out of you."
-Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, General secretary of the Global Pan African Movement, on Live 8.

Bob Geldof has anointed himself Africa's Great White Savior and many Third World activists are angry with him. The British rocker was the main organizer of last year's over-publicized Live 8 concert, a star studded event meant to pressure wealthy countries into providing debt relief, aid, and fair trade to African nations. Despite all the good will surrounding it, Live 8 became a symbol of all that is wrong with Western "philanthropy" towards the so-called Dark Continent. One iconic image of the concert was that of Madonna hugging Birhan Woldu, a young Ethiopian survivor of the famine that the first Live Aid event was meant to combat. The message was clear: Africa's myriad problems could be solved by Western benevolence.

The problem with that approach is that it does nothing to address the fact that Africa is not poor but instead impoverished. The chief beneficiaries of Africa's exploitation are the very G8 countries whose generosity Geldof continues to praise. By coddling the leaders of these nations, Geldof provided them with a better PR campaign than they could ever have created on their own. Impossibly, Geldof made leaders like Bush and Blair seem cool. By doing so, he did a great disservice to the people that he ostensibly wanted to help.

"From Charity to Justice": Live 8 and Global Capitalism
The admirable goal of Live 8 was to move away from the "handout" paradigm of the previous Live Aid concert, towards a justice-based model that would address some of the underlying causes of Africa's poverty (such as onerous debt and unfair trading practices of Western nations). Thus the event was meant to pressure the G8 countries into debt cancellation and commitments to greater aid for the continent.

The G8 is short for "Group of Eight," the eight most powerful and economically robust nations of the world: The US, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada, and Russia (as of 2006). These nations meet every year to determine the economic direction of the entire globe. By and large, what they decide, goes.

However, there has been a growing international movement to challenge the so-called "neoliberal" policies pushed by these countries. These policies, enforced by institutions like the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund, include "liberalization" and privatization of African economies: opening up vulnerable, fledgling African economies to predatory multinational corporations (MNCs). The World Bank has recently admitted the failure of these policies to provide significant economic development in so-called "Third-World" nations. Not surprisingly, however, these free market policies have been a boon to MNCs that have had legal and wide access to African economic resources at the expense of Africans.

Thus, the G8 nations are the enforcers of an economic system that has exploited the continent's resources to benefit wealthy nations and MNCs. As British journalist George Monbiot wrote, the Live 8 concert neglects to mention that "rich nations had played any role in Africa's accumulation of debt, or accumulations of weapons, or loss of resources, or collapse in public services, or concentration of wealth and power by unaccountable leaders."

False Promises
After the Live 8 concert, Bob Geldof praised G8 nations for their debt reduction and "cancellation" plans. In fact, even as many of these promises started to fall apart, he gave positive grades to G8 countries in a remarkably vacuous and sweeping statement: " On aid, 10 out of 10, on debt, 8 out of 10. Mission accomplished, frankly." This belied the true nature of the debt relief and the onerous "conditionalities" which were attached to it and to future aid.

To many outside onlookers, Africa's debt crisis is due to mismanagement and corruption. This reinforces the stereotype of a continent in need of Western financial tutelage. The legitimacy of these debts is never called into question, however. In fact, many of the countries and financial institutions that loaned money to the African continent often did so with full knowledge that some of these governments were led by tyrants who would never use these funds to help their own people.

During the Cold War, for example, many countries were used as pawns by the superpowers in their game of global supremacy. Dictators like Idi Amin of Uganda, and Charles Taylor of Liberia were offered loans that they predictably used to enrich themselves, with full knowledge of the creditors. Now, regular citizens of these nations are being forced by the World Bank and the IMF to repay these illegitimate loans, at the expense of funding for education, health care, and public services. In fact, African physicians derisively refer to the IMF as the "Infant Mortality Fund". To add an even more egregious example, the people of South Africa are currently being forced to pay the debt incurred by the Apartheid government. In effect, they are being forced to pay for their own oppression. As of today, African countries have repaid all of their loans, but are still subject to onerous interest payments. In fact, UN consultant Gerald Caplan notes, "vastly more money pours out of Africa each year back to rich countries than flows in." Thus, any attempt to reduce these debts that does not take into account their basic unfairness is suspect.

Live 8 did advocate for a reduction and, if possible, a cancellation of those debts. Predictably, G8 nations only offered debt reduction and cancellation to a handful of African countries and tied debt reduction to acceptance of the conditionalities that produced rampant poverty in the first place. Once again, the mantra of privatization and "free trade" was uttered by powerful nations, all the while claiming that they only had Africa's interest at heart. These conditions are so harsh that many African economic and political activists refer to neoliberal policies as forms of economic "neo-colonialization;" the scramble for Africa, in newfangled garb. Promises of future aid were also tied to these policies, and, in fact, in certain cases, "debt reduction" turned out to be identical to "future aid." That is, instead of pledging future aid, certain G8 countries chose to "magnanimously" reduce their debt. These concessions were far from those pushed for by the Live 8 organizers and by African activists. To add insult to injury, many nations backed away even from those promises. Nonetheless, Geldof gave his imprimatur to this process and silenced his critics harshly, especially if these critics happened to be from the African countries that he was supposed to help.

Image over substance: Madonna and Birhan Woldu.

White Man's Burden Redux
Bob Geldof is a modern day Dr. Livingstone. Livingstone was a Scottish missionary and explorer who cemented the idea of Africa as a Dark Continent in sore need of Western support. While well intentioned, his work was based on racist assumptions that did not critique the first round of Western colonialization. As prominent Jamaican academic Patricia Daley wrote, "Livingstone and Geldof's humanitarianism fits well with the demands of global capitalism, serving to obscure distinct phases in the exploitation of Africa."

The White paternalist undertones of Live 8 were confirmed by Geldof himself, who refused to have any Africans on the main stage at Hyde Park, claiming that they would not attract enough concert-goers. In addition, he still refuses to seriously take into account the criticism of African activists, adopting a "job well done" attitude. Demba Dembele, of the African Forum on Alternatives, put it succinctly: "The objectives of the whole Live 8 campaign had little to do with poverty reduction in Africa. It was a scheme to project Geldof and Blair as coming to the rescue of poor and helpless Africans." The real tragedy of Live 8 is that the goodwill of a great many individuals was channeled into legitimizing a process that did little to address the entrenched issues of African exploitation.


Aly, an SPC intern and former staffmember at Unity Acres, was born in Senegal.