Bob Geldof: he’s so overrated

The obsession over whether ‘St Bob’ is the saviour or destroyer of Africa precludes tougher questions about charity appeals.

Nathalie Rothschild

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In the debate about development aid, Bob Geldof – the singer turned self-appointed saviour of Africa – is the man that the media has come both to love and sneer at. And since the BBC issued an apology earlier this week over claims that Band Aid and Live Aid money was diverted by Ethiopian rebels to fund the purchase of weapons, the media’s rollercoaster love/hate affair with Geldof has taken another turn.

To the annoyance of some – including spiked – for years after his Live Aid bonanza, the scruffy aid impresario known for his no-BS attitude could do nothing wrong in the eyes of polite society. Those who did criticise Geldof’s patronising attitude to Africans, the negative impacts of the aid industry’s ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the way in which Africa was turned into the White Pop Star’s burden have been in the minority.

Both during Geldof’s 1985 Live Aid concerts to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims and his 2005 Live 8 gigs, which aimed to pressure G8 leaders into cancelling Third World debt and delivering trade justice for Africa, Geldof was admired for not shying away from lecturing politicians on their humanitarian responsibilities. Yet recently, he has become a figure of ridicule, looked upon as a big-headed egomaniac.

When, earlier this year, the BBC aired the radio documentary Aid For Arms in Ethiopia, which investigated claims that millions of pounds raised through the Live Aid concerts were diverted to fund rebel military operations in northern Ethiopia, there was a palpable sense of glee amongst the commentariat. For a while, it seemed like everyone was keen to kick ‘Sir Bob’ (he was knighted by the queen in 1985) off his proverbial throne.

A British TV documentary called Starsuckers, for instance, took a swipe at Geldof’s charitable work, particularly his star-studded Live 8 concerts. A number of aid agency representatives were interviewed in the film, calling Geldof ‘arrogant’ and blaming him for undermining their hard, unglamorous work with his attention-grabbing, glitzy gigs.

Now that the BBC has been forced to issue an apology (which was broadcast on all the corporation’s outlets this week) for suggesting that Band Aid money paid for arms, there’s a palpable sense of awkwardness in the media. Geldof, on his part, claims to be vindicated and is reclaiming his position as starvation fighter number one.

More than ever, Geldof looks like a straw man – not just because of his scruffy, unwashed appearance, but also for the way in which his bombastic, Africa-rescuing antics are being held up as the source of Africa’s happiness or devastation, depending on who you ask.

Yes, it is mad to think that Geldof could single-handedly save Africa by staging a few concerts and recording a cheesy single. But it is also mad to think that Geldof could single-handedly ruin Africa by allegedly distributing aid through organisations that naively let some rebels and warlords cream off a section of it. (Where the BBC focused on the fate of aid money in northern Ethiopia, several previous reports and have also claimed that aid efforts during the Ethiopian famine helped boost the coffers of the Mengistu regime and prolonged the war in Ethiopia.)

Sure, celebrity-bashing can be satisfying and speculations about where aid money ends up or doesn’t end up can be revealing, yet what really needs to be questioned are the assumptions that underpinned the Live Aid campaign and the many celebrity-led charity appeals it spawned.

What the BBC documentary failed to point out is that many of the damaging effects of aid explored in several reports – from Daniel Wolf’s investigative TV series The Hunger Business to Linda Polman’s book War Games – are, in fact, inevitable consequences of the kinds of charity campaigns and emotive media reporting which forego proper analysis of complex political situations in favour of emotive black-and-white narratives.

In the case of Ethiopia and the morality tales spun around it, the Mengistu regime and the rebel forces have occupied the roles of the malevolent political players, the Ethiopian people are the helpless victims, and Western aid organisations are presented as the benevolent saviours. Since then, this kind of narrative – of incompetent and corrupt regimes, victimised impoverished peoples and Western saviours – has been transposed to other conflicts and humanitarian crisis situations.

By the time the Live 8 jamboree came around in 2005, the West’s responsibility to Make Poverty History was accepted as a no-brainer. Sure, many newspaper columnists had a swipe at the celebrity shenanigans at the time, with self-important pop stars like Geldof, Bono and Chris Martin the targets of celebrity-bashing. Yet there was still an overwhelming consensus that the kinds of solutions to poverty that these celebrities supported were a Good Thing.

In Starsuckers, too, it was the glitzy side of Live 8 that came under attack, while aid campaigners representing the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign got to pose as genuine, hard-working fighters for justice. In truth, both Live 8 and MPH deployed celebrities to get the attention of political leaders and the public, and they argued for the very same goals. It’s just that their campaigning methods were slightly different.

What Live 8 and MPH, just like Live Aid before them, 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. Their aim was to get global leaders to adopt the Millennium Development Goals in order to eradicate, not all poverty, but extreme poverty. These goals 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 what about those who have escaped extreme poverty, but are still living by standards that no Westerner would deem acceptable?

The legacy of Live Aid and the pompousness of Geldof do need to be challenged and questioned – no celebrity or charity campaign should be above scrutiny. Yet to hold up Geldof as an easy target for ridicule, to blame him alone for the simplification of the complex and serious issues of conflict, hunger and poverty, is to let numerous reporters, politicians and aid organisations who have been, and still are, scrambling to save Africa from itself off the hook.

Unfortunately, Aid For Arms in Ethiopia failed to get to the bottom of the problems with Live Aid – not because it got some figures wrong or failed to gather enough hard evidence for its claims, but because it did not address the very character and aims of aid to Africa. The obsession over whether ‘Sir Bob’ is the saviour or destroyer of Africa is diverting attention from a more important critique of the idea that Africa needs to be saved by the West.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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