‘No, I am the true saviour of the world!’
The clash between Bob Geldof and Make Poverty History is an unsavoury battle of ‘Africa-saving’ egos.
It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Sir Bob Geldof, who has referred to anti-poverty demonstrators at the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, as ‘wankers dressed as clowns’. And it’s not often I agree with John Hilary, executive director of War on Want and a senior executive of the Make Poverty History coalition, who has called Geldof ‘arrogant’.
The spat took off after a new documentary about celebrity culture, Starsuckers by Chris Atkins (shown last night on More 4), took a swipe at Geldof’s charitable work, particularly his star-studded Live 8 concerts which aimed to pressure G8 leaders into cancelling Third World debt and delivering trade justice for Africa.
In the film, Hilary and others claim Live 8 overshadowed and blunted the efforts of Make Poverty History, the global coalition of anti-poverty campaigners who also wanted to raise awareness, not money, about global poverty and to hold G8 leaders to account for Third World debt and unfair trade conditions. The Live 8 concerts took place at 10 venues around the world on the same day as protesters, led by the Make Poverty History coalition, took to the streets of Edinburgh during the G8 summit. Starsuckers suggests that Live 8 stole the limelight away from the demonstrations.
Staying true to his trademark verbosity, Geldof fired off a 6,000-word, expletive-filled letter and various legal threats to director Chris Atkins, who made it all public. This prompted Hilary to write an article for the Guardian, defending his statements in Starsuckers and condemning the arrogance of Sir Bob.
It is a truly farcical situation, a battle of the egos, with Geldof on one side claiming that rock’n’roll can save the world, and NGO execs on the other side posing as Third World Saviours. And to top it off, there is Atkins, whose film appears to counterpose Live 8 as a sensationalist, headline-grabbing, record sales-boosting jamboree with Make Poverty History as a worthy, political and democratic movement.
Starsuckers suggests that we, the public, are so enthralled by celebrity culture that as soon as Geldof, Madonna and Co. stepped on stage, we suddenly couldn’t care less about what happened at Gleneagles. Instead, we undid months of campaigning by the good people of Make Poverty History, allowing politicians to puppeteer global relations away from the public gaze, as we were all glued to our television sets. According to Live 8’s website, an estimated three billion people watched the concerts around the world.
It was actually difficult to tell the Live 8 and Make Poverty History campaigns apart. Both claimed to be awareness-raising campaigns aiming to ‘make poverty history’ by convincing G8 leaders to cancel Third World debt, promote ‘fair trade’ and meet the Millennium Development Goals. They both urged the public in the West to put pressure on politicians, and, in fact, world leaders competed for photo ops with the frontmen and women of both campaigns. Both Live 8 and Make Poverty History focused on Africa and suggested that their aims were shared by poor people around the world; the campaign leaders claimed to be speaking on behalf of the disempowered. Finally, both Live 8 and Make Poverty History were fronted by celebrities – singing, dancing, joking, crooning movie stars, pop stars, television presenters and comedians.
Indeed, many celebrities endorsed both campaigns. Geldof himself appeared in a Make Poverty History campaign film where various global stars clicked their fingers every three seconds to indicate the death rate of children living in extreme poverty. At the end the ad urged: ‘Tell the G8 that every move they make, we’ll be watching.’ This, of course, paraphrases the famous song ‘Every Breath You Take’, by Sting, who performed at one of the Live 8 concerts. So it’s a bit rich for Hilary to accuse Geldof of undermining a political movement by putting a bunch of pop stars on stages around the world when Make Poverty History itself was a celebrity-led campaign.
Just like Live 8, and Live Aid before that, Make Poverty History held both the public in the West and in the developing world in contempt. Apparently, we Westerners can’t take issues seriously unless the likes of Brad Pitt and Bono tell us to, and apparently people in Africa and elsewhere are too busy scrambling for food and swiping flies off their faces to speak up and lobby politicians. Enter do-gooding celebs, NGOs and anti-globalisation protesters to speak on behalf of the ‘voiceless’. As Bono put it at the time, ‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all…. They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.’
At the time of the Live 8 concerts, many newspaper columnists had a swipe at the celebrity jamboree; self-important celebrities like Geldof, Bono and Chris Martin became the targets of sardonic celebrity-bashing. Well-aimed, perhaps, but, as Starsuckers has shown yet again, while many are cynical about celebrity extravaganzas few have questioned the ideas underlying both Live 8 and the Make Poverty History coalition. Instead there is an overwhelming consensus that the campaign was a Good Thing. From Nelson Mandela to P Diddy, from Tony Blair to Cameron Diaz, from Ricky Gervais to Jon Snow – they all joined together to assert that no one likes poverty and, surely, we all want to get rid of it? Therefore, the logic went, this campaign should be supported.
But what Make Poverty History really represented was an entrenchment of low ambitions for the developing world and of the division of the globe into Third World victims and Western saviours.
The aim was not really to make poverty history, but to eradicate extreme poverty by putting pressure on nation states to ensure that the Millennium Development Goals are met. These targets outline living conditions which no one in the West would deem acceptable. For instance, they include aims to, by 2015, cut by half the proportion of people living on less than one dollar a day and to cut by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. What about the other half? And for those who are raised from extreme poverty, will barely surviving really mean they get to enjoy good quality of life? Hardly.
Aid organisations and the likes of Geldof and Bono presented themselves as a radical challenge to global leaders, but the Millenium Development Goals had already been officially endorsed in 2000 by every member of the United Nations. While celebrities strummed their guitars and tugged at our heart strings, and while aid organisations hired top ad agencies to create clever campaigns, those at the receiving end of poverty relief programmes were being condemned to a life determined by the poor ambitions of Western decision-makers and their celebrity and NGO cheerleaders.
So John Hilary has accused Bob Geldof of arrogance, of believing that ‘he alone was responsible for creating a mass movement on global poverty’. He is right. But it’s not just Geldof, but also international aid organisations, multilateral agencies, global leaders and a melange of celebrities who together have helped perpetuate the idea that people in the developing world are beggars who can’t be choosers, that they should be happy that Westerners are helping take the edge off poverty. Together, they have made sidestepping the democratic process seem acceptable, as time and again they claim the right to speak on behalf of poor people around the world who are portrayed as victims of corrupt governments, as starving, voiceless, weaklings in need of rescue.
While celebrity campaigns can indeed be cringe-worthy, Starsuckers gets the target wrong: it’s the widespread consensus that it is acceptable for one half of the world to dictate to the other half how to live that really needs to be challenged.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked