Writes Magnus Linklater:
THERE ARE TWO Bob Geldofs. One is an articulate and persuasive speaker, who commands the attention and respect of world leaders as well as experts in the field of global poverty. The other one is completely mad.
What on earth is he doing, inviting a million people to march on Edinburgh? Did he consult the city fathers first, find out whether the police could cope, or work out whether there were enough Portaloos to go round? What gives him the right to tell children to “bunk off” school for two days, because he believes that protest is more important than geometry? Did he talk to the teachers and ask them what this would do to their classes?
By what lunatic leap of the imagination did he decide to restage Dunkirk and embark a fleet of protesters from France? Did he study the tanker routes or consult the coastguards?
Of course not — he told them afterwards. This is Geldof the licensed fool, and just as the fool is allowed to thumb his nose at the king, so Geldof the demagogue, deploying his charm, his four-letter directness and his Live Aid credentials, can break the rules with impunity, organising mayhem in other peoples’ cities while sheltering behind the all-embracing defence of “making poverty history”. This is not only foolish, it is a disservice to Africa, and Geldof, of all people, should realise that.
Anyone who has heard him speak — as I did in the Scottish Parliament recently — appreciates that he has grasped the arguments about Africa, understands how aid works and how aid, wrongly applied, can make things worse. He knows the argument is not just about money. Over the past 40 years, Africa has received more foreign aid in real terms than the Marshall Plan. Most of this has been swallowed up by corrupt governments and civil wars, leaving millions worse off than before. Geldof is, therefore, in a unique position to explain how the West should tackle poverty, without repeating the mistakes of the past.
Instead, he has buried the explanations beneath a naked appeal to popular outrage. By linking the protest march with his Live 8 concerts, he is presenting two quite separate issues as one. The first is about raising money, the second is about engineering change.
Most of those who descend on Edinburgh will assume from Geldof’s rhetoric that the capitalist West has, through a combination of greed and selfishness, failed the people of Africa; that if only its leaders could be persuaded to give more generously, increasing their share of national budgets and cancelling African debts, then we would no longer, as he puts it, have to “tolerate the 21st century Orwellian vision of people dying on our television screens every night”.
The truth, as he must be aware, is not only more complex, it is deeply troubling for anyone who bothers to think beyond the safe confines of the liberal conscience. It is that President Bush’s hard-edged African policies come closer to finding a solution than those of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Britain argues that Western aid to Africa should be doubled, and some $15 billion worth of loans should be written off. Although channelled through Mr Brown’s proposed International Finance Facility, the funding would still be negotiated directly with African governments, many of which remain as corrupt and secretive as those of the old dictatorships that brought the continent to its knees in the 1970s and 1980s. America, by contrast, is insisting that funds should be channelled only to countries that tackle corruption, improve accountability and reform their banking systems.
Mr Blair’s Africa Commission shies away from this. It concedes that corruption is a problem, but assumes that today’s regimes are more open and honest. “Africa, at last, looks set to deliver,” it pronounces. Yet barely three years have passed since four million people fell victim to civil war in the Congo; an estimated 200,000 have died in Darfur; the economy of once wealthy Zimbabwe has collapsed; corruption is endemic in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Cameroon. To determine from this that Africa has reformed itself is naive to the point of blindness.
If Geldof were to use his huge influence to maximum effect he might say something like this: change in Africa can only begin in Africa itself. Simply pouring more money into the purses of corrupt regimes will do nothing except to inflate their laundered bank accounts in London and Zurich and leave their people starving. Support should be channelled directly to those local areas and those local communities that need help to stand on their own feet, where small farmers and small businesses can thrive if given the incentive to do it, and where there is complete transparency about who owns what and how the money is spent. Only those agencies that have shown themselves to be truly independent of governments will be allowed to administer funds. Only regimes that are prepared to be open and accountable to their own people will receive help. Meanwhile, there is a message for Western nations which the G8 leaders should debate and agree: they must stop dumping their surpluses on Africa and grotesquely subsidising their own industries — the US cotton industry is a case in point.
Instead of requisitioning an army of protesters to descend on Edinburgh, bringing that harmless city to a standstill, Geldof should ask his foot soldiers to stay at home and send the money that they would have spent on travelling to a special account reserved for making small but effective changes to Africa’s faltering democracies. All proceeds from the Live 8 concerts should bypass national governments and go direct to local communities, serviced by reliable agencies. Meanwhile, Geldof the madman should give way to Geldof the far-sighted. Like Malvolio he is “wise enough to play the fool”. He should be clever enough to grow up as well.
There are two tempting but opposite reactions to Geldof, both wrong. The first is to dismiss him as a tiresome, misguided fool on a big ego-trip. The second is to believe that he has all the answers and that it really is easy to solve Africa’s problems by working ourselves up into a good self-righteous lather, listening to Coldplay and haranguing those evil western politicians at the G8 summit.
The answer is somewhere in the middle. You can pour all the money in the world into Africa and it will do nothing other than temporarily salve the conscience of western liberals and inflate the private bank balances of some really unpleasant African regimes.
In this instance, the Americans have it about right. Get tough on the corruption, give people the freedom to start making their own money, and aid can start to mean something.