Should we make ‘Make Poverty History’ history?

The problem with the Live 8 jamboree is not the self-important rock stars, but the politics of low expectations.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

It isn’t often that Peter Hitchens, the usually dry, sometimes irate man of letters, makes me laugh. But he did on Sunday, with a newspaper column headlined: ‘Can the starving children of Africa save our has-been pop stars yet again?’

Hitchens’ witty conceit was that Live 8 – an international music-fest fronted by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to ‘raise awareness’ about the Make Poverty History campaign, a kind of belated sequel to their 1985 effort, Live Aid – was more about feeding pop egos than feeding the world. Once again, he wrote, ‘the hungry, terrorised children of Africa’ are being called upon ‘to help rescue the sagging reputations of that needy and deprived group of balding, clapped-out rock stars who still long for the crowds that once listened to them’ (1). Ouch.

Hitchens isn’t the only one having a pop at pop stars for fancying themselves as the saviours of mankind from poverty and pestilence. Will Self says the ‘spectacle of a lot of bloated pop stars “ridding the world of famine” [has] me reaching for my sick bag’ (2). Others have asked why Geldof, if he really wants to send a ‘serious message’ about world poverty through Live 8, has got the likes of ‘Robbie “let’s have a fart-lighting competition” Williams near the top of the bill’ (3).

It’s always fun to knock self-important pop stars (Bono, Chris Martin), and of course they deserve it. And never mind Robbie Williams, Geldof’s line-up also includes Mariah Carey, the demanding diva not known for her philanthropic streak, while the Spice Girls – whose solo careers are a disaster (Geri was yesterday reduced to plugging her latest album in an Asda superstore in Watford after industry insiders predicted that it would fail to dent the Top 10) – have seized upon Live 8 as an opportunity to reunite. Yet again, Africa does its bit for struggling artists in the West.

But isn’t bashing Bob and co. also a bit easy? Some of the anti-Live 8 lot seem to be motivated by cynicism, or by plain old misanthropy in the case of Will Self. He describes himself as a ‘mostly greedy and frightened little human being who is no more able to control rapacious multinationals and corrupt African demagogues than I could part the Red Sea, or get Geldof’s hair conditioned’ – and the rest of us are ‘exactly the same’, he claims (4). Mirror columnist Brian Reade attacked these cynics, hoping that Live 8 might at least ‘make cynicism towards trying to wipe out poverty history’ (5).

The problem is that while some commentators ridicule pop stars, hardly anybody challenges the Make Poverty History campaign itself – or the aid organisations behind it. There is a fairly formidable global consensus that the campaign is a good thing and that everyone who wants to ‘make history’ and end suffering in the third world ought to invest their energies in it. Nelson Mandela supports it, as does Tony Blair, spotted proudly sporting a Make Poverty History white wristband in March. And everyone who’s anyone in the celeb stakes – Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Kate Moss, P Diddy – has featured in one of those nauseating TV ads where they click their fingers, each click signifying that every three seconds a child dies due to extreme poverty somewhere in the world.

Indeed, Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow, a self-described ‘pinko liberal’, reckons the Make Poverty History campaign is ‘beyond contention’ (6). When Snow’s producer asked him whether he perhaps should remove his white wristband while interviewing Tory leader Michael Howard, Snow refused; why should he, he asked, when the Make Poverty History campaign is ‘beyond contention’ – that is, beyond controversy or debate?

It is high time we injected some contention into the discussion of Make Poverty History, and I don’t mean more cynical celeb-bashing. Those of us who, unlike Will Self, do not consider the majority of human beings to be ‘greedy and frightened’ and who do think it’s possible for people in the third world to be liberated from poverty and hunger should start by challenging the breathtakingly low expectations of the white wristband brigade. Perhaps it is time to make Make Poverty History history.

The first thing to note is that Make Poverty History, even by its own admission, will not make poverty history. Indeed, that is not, strictly speaking, its aim. Its goal is to eradicate extreme poverty by putting pressure on nation states to ensure that the Millennium Development Goals – which every member of the United Nations officially endorsed in 2000 – are met.

The first Millennium Development Goal on poverty is to cut by half the proportion of people living on less than one dollar a day by 2015 – which, if achieved, would still leave hundreds of millions of people living below the one-dollar threshold. The World Bank has set up a website dedicated to explaining and winning support for these Millennium Development Goals, and even that site admits that achieving goal number 1 would not make poverty history. ‘[W]hile poverty would not be eradicated, [it] would bring us much closer to the day when we can say that all the world’s people have at least the bare minimum to eat and clothe themselves’, the site says (7).

Perhaps the grand-sounding Make Poverty History should be more honest: it is really a campaign to inch towards a world where people have the bare essentials of life – a piece of cloth to put on their backs and enough food to stop them from dying. If those aims were to be plastered on billboards or in flashy TV ads, however, the campaign suddenly might not look so attractive.

Even if we accept that raising half of the poorest people’s daily wage to over a dollar would be a good thing for those individuals and their families, it is still far, far below what we would expect for ourselves and our own families.

In the European Union, poverty is generally taken to mean someone living on 60 per cent of the median income in their country. So in Britain in 2001/2002, the poverty threshold was £187 per week for a couple with no children, £114 for a single person with no children, £273 for a couple with two children aged five and 11, and £200 for a single parent with two children aged five and 11. By contrast, 1.1billion people around the world live on less than $1 a day (the poorest of all, and the main target of the Millennium Development Goals) and 2.7billion live on less than $2 a day. If it is considered unacceptable – poverty – for a single man or woman in Britain to live on £114 a week, why should we see raising wages in the third world from a dollar a day to two or three or four dollars a day as one of the highest global aspirations?

The second Millennium Development Goal on poverty is to ‘cut by half, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger’ (8). What about the other half? Even if Make Poverty History is successful in pressurising governments to stick to their Millennium Development promises, half of the world’s poor will still live on less than a dollar a day and half will still ‘suffer from hunger’. In short, poverty will not be history – far from it. The other Millennium Development Goals – relating to making primary education available to more children and reversing the spread of HIV-AIDS and the incidence of malaria – are also notable for their lack of ambition.

Make Poverty History campaigners respond by saying, ‘Well, we’ve got to start somewhere’, or else by insisting that we have got to be ‘realistic’. Yet these Millennium Development Goals are not a starting point – they are the goal itself. This is ‘sustainable development’ in action. Sustainable development has become the organising principle of third world aid and charity in recent decades, and it is a sorry substitute for real, meaningful development. Where old-style development emphasised the need to overhaul and industrialise societies in order truly to improve people’s lives, sustainable development, like the Millennium Development Goals, is about addressing the ‘essential needs of the world’s poor’ through ‘small, cheap and sustainable solutions that protect the environment’ (in the words of UNICEF) (9). The end result of this drip-drip approach to improving life in the third world is millennial goals that aim only to rescue half of the world’s poorest from extreme hunger.

Make Poverty History presents itself as a grassroots group, made up of millions of ordinary people and a few hundred celebs who have joined forces to do their bit to improve life in the third world. Yet, as Daniel Ben-Ami has pointed out on spiked, the campaign is more concerned with holding governments to their promises than with putting forward new or challenging or independent arguments for change. ‘All of the key measures advocated by [Make Poverty History] have been supported by the British government and are part of a broader international consensus’, wrote Ben-Ami (see Poor ambitions for the world).

In this sense, Live 8 is little more than the pop wing of G8, and Make Poverty History is little more than a management committee making sure that America, Britain, France and the rest push through their Millennium Development Goals. There is little radical or even independent about Make Poverty History and Geldof’s coinciding global pop jamboree. They might consider themselves punkish and edgy, but these pop and rock acts are merely shouting at the world powers to do what they had already planned to do – slowly and incrementally eradicate only the worst instances of poverty and starvation in the world today. Bob, Bono and the rest simply provide the soundtrack to officialdom’s slothful anti-poverty campaign.

Some have attacked the Live 8 organisers and participants on the grounds that they take the easy option. If these Beautiful People are serious about eradicating poverty, they say, why don’t they sell all their worldly goods, sign up to an aid agency and spend their days helping Africans on the ground? Yet the work of aid agencies should not be beyond contention, either.

Every major third world charity and non-governmental organisation, including OXFAM, supports the narrow campaigning of Make Poverty History. That is not suprising when you consider that some of these agencies have been at the forefront of pushing sustainable development, effectively reconciling poor Africans and Asians to their lot (or, at best, a little bit more than their lot) in the process. Also, some aid agencies now make aid conditional on communities behaving in what is seen as an acceptable manner. We hear a lot about the conditions imposed by the IMF and the World Bank on third world nations; yet some aid agencies insist that communities follow strict guidelines on sexual health or gender relations if they want to enjoy the full benefits of aid. Here, aid agencies effectively try to impose the mores of Islington on to the marshes of Africa.

Never mind Bono, Bob, Robbie and Mariah: those planning to take to the stage for Live 8 are only doing what pop stars have been doing for years – being self-important and self-deluded. If you want to make not only extreme poverty but economic need itself history, then it is the low horizons of the politicians and aid workers, who have a real impact in the third world, that you should be most concerned about.

(1) ‘Can the starving children of Africa save our has-been pop stars yet again?’, Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday, 5 June 2005

(2) ‘Why I won’t be squandering any more money on Africa’, Will Self, London Evening Standard, 2 June 2005

(3) Live 8’s a poor show, but it beats cynics, Brian Reade, Mirror, 2 June 2005

(4) ‘Why I won’t be squandering any more money on Africa’, Will Self, London Evening Standard, 2 June 2005

(5) Live 8’s a poor show, but it beats cynics, Brian Reade, Mirror, 2 June 2005

(6) Diary, Jon Snow, New Statesman, 23 May 2005

(7) World Bank Development Goals website

(8) World Bank Development Goals website

(9) See Hand pumps are not good enough, by Ceri Dingle

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Topics Politics


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