|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives|
|Geldof: 'I Don't Want Our Image Of The Future To Be Children Dying On TV'|
Two decades after Live Aid, Bob Geldof explains why the new Commission for Africa is the best way to tackle poverty and famine. He tells Paul Vallely about his Big Idea
London, February 27, 2004 (Independent, UK) – Bob Geldof falls into an unaccustomed silence. He sits and thinks. Then he tells a story about his last trip to Ethiopia.
He had been in the mountainous east of the country, not far from Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. "I went to one project there where all the village lads came tearing out to meet us, standing to attention in a long line. They were wearing proud fixed grins and bizarre petrochemical boiler suits, in this remote village, in the middle of nowhere, with all the usual naked kids of Africa tumbling around them," he recalls.
"The suits were preposterous, tattered and full of holes that would protect nobody from anything much. It was a project where they had once used dangerous chemicals, but where the money for such Western delights had run out and they had resorted to the ancient tradition of using animal and human urine as a pesticide. But how proud they were of their useless suits, and their goggles, in which they baked under the broiling African sun."
It may have been that, he says, which was the trigger. But the image is crowded out swiftly by another, and then another. Of the white convoys of UN cars in Addis Ababa causing traffic jams in one of the world's poorest capital cities. Of the woman he met in an Addis restaurant who turned out to be the Minister of Health for neighboring Somaliland. She produced a picture of a hospital she had built. "She had built it with her own money that she had saved while she was working in the States. It turns out that the entire national budget for her country is just $20m - which wouldn't buy you an effing cul-de-sac in Battersea.
"It was all a weird inversion of reality. It was not depressing," he adds. "There were good things happening everywhere. But I was struck by a sense that none of it seemed to link up. Everything was piecemeal."
That uneasy feeling persisted on his return. "I went to the launch of some UN report. It was full of the great and the good talking about Hipic and Nepad and all the other acronyms that we hide behind when we're afraid of the truth. I felt like I'd been hearing it all for 20 years.
"On the ground in Africa the tyrants who had dominated the place when I first went there in the Eighties - Mengistu in Ethiopia and Mobutu in Zaire - had gone. People were making an effort. But nothing much had changed. The reality remained one of critical, dire, absolute poverty."
What began to form in his mind was that next year was the 20th anniversary of Live Aid - an event which the Chancellor Gordon Brown recently referred to as the most important collective event in the life of his generation. What was needed to mark the anniversary in 2005, Mr. Geldof decided, was a new blueprint which would join up all these dots - a Big Idea which would do for the 21st century what the Brandt report did in the 1970s to make a generation rethink the framework in which to discharge its responsibility towards the world's poor. That report, by international elder statesmen including the former German chancellor Willy Brandt and the former British prime minister Edward Heath, had come up with the concept that "enlightened self-interest" was needed if the North was to prevent an eventual violent explosion of discontent by the poor people of the global South.
"The thing about Brandt and his commissioners, though," insists Mr. Geldof, "was that they were no longer in power. They weren't in a position to implement their recommendations. So I knew that a Live Aid commission or a Geldof report wouldn't be enough."
So he turned to Tony Blair. Despite the fallout from the war in Iraq and the backlash from the singularly one-sided Hutton report, Mr. Blair remains "the only show in town", the musician campaigner believes. Moreover the Prime Minister will also in 2005 be both the chairman of the G8 group of the world's richest nations and Britain will hold the presidency of the European Union.
Mr. Geldof moved behind the scenes to persuade Mr Blair of the logic of his thinking. Over a number of private meetings he managed to get the Prime Minister not only to set up the commission but also agree to chair it.
The French President Jacques Chirac has appointed a commissioner, as has George Bush. Geldof himself will be a commissioner, as will high-level nominees of the governments in China, Kenya and Ethiopia. Gordon Brown will be both a commissioner and will chair its finance sub-group.
"These are highly geared-up people," Mr. Geldof says, "and the mix suggests it will not be a commission of Yes-men. The brief will be far wider than economics. It will look at the cultural and philosophical framework which explains what really drives the way the world works - and why it leaves Africa behind."
The old thinking will not change anything, Mr. Geldof insists. "It has us lining up our armies on our southern borders with ideas from far-right politicians like Umberto Bossi that when the Africans start to flood over the solution is that we shoot them."
Mr. Geldof snorts. "They've got more people than we've got bullets. If they come - and they will, as I did, for a better life - the reality will be dire."
But the world has changed and needs new thinking. "We have to catch up with transformed global realities. And not just about new global problems like al-Qa'ida or Aids. By 2030 China will be the world's dominant economy; that means I'm going to be alive when America gets to be the No 2. China will race ahead and will drag Asia along in its slipstream. But what about Africa?
"When I first went to Africa a Cold War stasis was in place. But that bi-polar world has collapsed. In the new uni-polar world the poor are buffeted by influences of a wholly different world order, which sees them only as targets or markets.
"Yet we still haven't really got to grips with the intellectual implications of that. So much of our thinking - on trade, debt, development - is stuck in the old Cold War paradigm. For all the rhetoric about free markets we live in one of the most protectionist economic systems ever. There are new thinkers out there working on all this but the message hasn't yet got to the high table. We don't know whether they're right or wrong but we need to find out."
Over the past decade Mr. Geldof has surfed the circles of the powerful and influential - Sir Bob with the Pope, with Bill Clinton, with George Bush, with Tony Blair and on it goes.
"In all that time there's not a single person I've met who doesn't want to make things better," he says. He knows the cynics will sneer at this. "They will say: 'If they're so concerned why don't they just do this, this and this'."
Part of the job of the commission will be to find out why we don't. "There is a terrible disconnect between what we want - to help these people - and what we actually do - often making their lives worse. We need to explain that rupture," he says.
"I know some people are going to say: 'Get a grip. We know why. It's because we're rich and they're poor and, whatever we say, we want things to stay that way.' But it's no good just saying why don't Blair and Brown just write the cheque, because we know that would unbalance any one national economy. This is something all the rich world has to do together. And to find out what are the roadblocks to that requires something more fundamental than conferences about narrow single issues."
Yet what is to stop the Africa commission from just being another talking shop producing another dust-gathering report?
"Unusually for me, I'm genuinely excited that maybe for once we can do more. The critical difference is that this report will have political weight. It will be chaired by Blair who will in 2005, because of the coinciding of the EU and G8 presidencies, be perhaps the most influential politician in the world.
"And because he and Bush and Chirac are signing up to the report it will be taken with a readiness and seriousness. It will become a yardstick against which future G8 performances can be measured. What have we got to lose?"
In the Orwellian nightmare the image of the future was a boot stamping on a human face forever. "Will our image of the future be African children dying on our TV screens for ever? It can't be. Something has to happen. This is the opportunity to re-animate an entire continent as the Marshal plan did for Europe after the Second World War.
"What a thing for Britain's Live Aid generation to do with the immense year of political influence which is to come."