Mission or Missionary?

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Copyright © 2006 riceNpeas

Anyone remember Live 8? Almost nine months ago to the day, nine concerts were held simultaneously around the world with the objective of convincing G8 world leaders to change their policies towards Africa. The initiative was the brainchild of Irish singer, songwriter, and political activist Bob Geldof and famed British director of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Richard Curtis, as well as U2’s leading man, Bono. The event was staged twenty years after Live Aid, a fundraising concert for the famine in Ethiopia.

Although organisers hailed Live 8 as a success, critics say it has achieved little, if anything at all. The next day's media coverage led with Geldof's “mission accomplished” verdict. But who was the mission for, and are these pop stars the new-age missionaries?

Celebrity endorsement is now seen as almost critical to the success of any serious campaign. But celebrities like Geldof and Bono do not just endorse campaigns; they create them. In fact, one could argue that Geldof has totally reinvented himself as a celebrity campaigner.

These icons are showered with praise and cynicism alike for their actions. It is fair to say they are using their status for what they believe to be a good cause. But at times it seems like they are the self-elected mouthpiece for the conscience of the general public. Much like politicians, they are now consulted on other political and moral questions. Rarely does anyone question the education behind these pop stars’ authoritative proclamations on polemic and complex topics such as Africa, pollution, and human rights.

Should we blame the media for giving these pop stars such an unprecedented platform? Perhaps the media is just catering to the celebrity-hungry general public who would rather hear about the diet cheats of runway models than the famine brought on by the recent East African drought. Are we so shallow that we need the face of an actor or singer to lend real currency to any given cause? Regardless, if celebrities are willing to use their status to raise awareness for a campaign, or to help raise funds, then so be it. The problem is that the celebrity egos, whilst caught up in their own altruism, very often short-circuit the possibility that their actions are at times insensitive and uneducated.

Throughout the build-up to Live 8, Bob Geldof came under fire for his lack of consultation with the intellectuals, politicians and representatives of Africa. Instead, he steadily praised Blair and Brown for their commitment to the continent’s problems, whilst his partner in the crusade, Bono, lavished praise on George Bush for his “millennium challenge account,” even though this initiative explicitly links aid to cooperation with the War on Terror. A stark example is the increase in ODA (official development aid) by the US government to Pakistan following their cooperation post-9/11 and in the war in Afghanistan. From a figure of less than US $100 million per year, it has risen to nearly US $800 million. A Christian aid report stated that: “Having a new quasi-ideological theme to justify most security assistance is extremely convenient for the Bush Administration. Policy objectives that could not have been pursued in the Pre-September 11 security environment can now be repackaged and sold as part of the counter-terrorism effort. In addition, wrapping new security assistance programs in a counter-terrorism cloak allows the administration to provide support for repressive regimes and aid to states verging on, or currently involved in, armed conflict.” Christian Aid’s head of policy, Charles Abugre, argued: “The campaign has been too superficial. A serious occasion was turned into a celebration of celebrities.”

When Geldof was questioned as to why there were so few African acts in the Live 8 programme, his response was: “For all their great musicianship, African acts do not sell many records. People wouldn't watch.” Thus, an event whose sole purpose was to help Africans excluded them from performing. If, in fact, he recognizes that African acts indeed have “great musicianship,” then wouldn’t an opportunity to demonstrate their talent to an audience of three billion gain them the very recognition they themselves cannot harvest? Beyond that, the sheer insensitivity of not allowing Africans to be part of their own solution is both arrogant and paternalistic. Firoze Manji, the co-director of Fahamu, an African social justice network and a member of G-Cap, recounts how the African coalition had planned a concert in Johannesburg in early July to be held in one of the townships. According to Manji, a meeting of Oxfam GB, Curtis, Geldof and Kumi Naidoo cancelled it in favour of Live 8.

The umbrella campaign Make Poverty History (MPH) gathered serious momentum on lead up to Live 8. People of all ages, persuasions and walks of life sported the trendy wristbands (amid unfathomable rumours that they had been produced in sweatshops). They were available online where one could make a donation of whatever one could afford in exchange for a band. Ironically enough, throughout the campaign, street vendors were seen on Oxford Street and other major shopping areas in London, selling them en masse out of cardboard boxes. This concisely demonstrates the danger of making campaigns a la mode; people just wanted to mimic the stars of the campaign (which included actors, singer and models) instead of actually contributing to the cause. Even the uber-ambitious title of the campaign, “Make Poverty History,” highlights the naivety and superciliousness of the people behind it.

Geldof’s name soon became synonymous with the self-congratulatory Live 8: so much so, that if it failed, he failed. It had to work! The cynics claim he sugar-coated the Gleneagles result, asserting: “On aid, 10 out of 10. On debt, 8 out of 10. On trade ... it is quite clear that this summit, uniquely, decided that enforced liberalisation must no longer take place.” He then finished with a flourish: “That is a serious, excellent result on trade.” His evaluation did not agree with that of Senegalese economist Demba Moussa Dembele: “People must not be fooled by the celebrities: Africa got nothing.”

Kumi Naidoo, the veteran South African anti-apartheid campaigner and current chair of MPH's international umbrella, the Global Call to Action against Poverty (G-cap), had delivered the coalition's official response: “The people have roared but the G8 has whispered. The promise to deliver [more aid] by 2010 is like waiting five years before responding to the tsunami.” These comments, however, were not tabloid headlines the following day. Instead, the words of the self-elected representatives duped the public into believing “mission accomplished” (as they put it). This could be seen as damaging to the campaign as it may lead people to think that Africa’s problems are solved. And indeed, where is the media attention these days? Nine months on and the silence from MPH is deafening.

Before Live 8, Geldof was closely associated with Fathers for Justice, an organization aimed at helping fathers gain custody of or access to their children. Again, Geldof seemed to make a self-indulgent crusade. His BBC documentary, which followed him around the continent he so champions, was simply called Geldof in Africa. Throughout the programme, it is clear that Sir Bob has a genuine affection for the people and a credible awe for the countries he visits.

But he descends upon African villages talking of the massive changes he is working towards, and he falls into the same cliché of presenting the white man as a saviour to Africa. In fact, all dressed in white, with his sandals and his flowing hair, performing miracles such as Live Aid and Live 8, he could be mistaken for the Second Coming.

The argument can be reduced to very simple terms; all the grandstanding, back-patting and preaching could be tolerated, if, in terms of realpolitik, it made a difference. Africa is rich in ways that Europe or even North America could never hope to be, but she cannot utilize her natural resources because of the shackles of Western trade rules and unreasonable, enslaving debt structures. If MPH or Live 8 have helped to pressurize G8 leaders into releasing Africa from the chains that they themselves have imposed, all the better.

Likewise, if Bono has saved even one square mile of rainforest through his campaigning, shouldn’t we say “well done”? Or is it too hard to reconcile Bono’s seemingly green stance with the decadence of the private jet, five star hotel, rock star lifestyle? This hypocrisy is echoed by Jamiroquai’s front man Jay Kay, whose first album was called Emergency on Planet Earth. As the title hints, this album was a call to everyone to save the world from plights such as pollution and corporate greed, yet Jay Kay is known for having not just a Porsche, but a Ferrari, a Lambourgini and a retinue of other cars.

With all celebrity campaigns comes cynicism, and often justifiably so. But this does not mean that we should totally discredit the actions of these crusaders. In spite of the overwhelming egos at large, this is believably all coming from a good place, however misguided that may be. If there is an emergency on planet earth, at least they are trying.

By Gabrielle Tierney

1st March 2006