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IT IS 17 YEARS SINCE LIVE AID… and Bob Geldof is back, telling the world to listen to Africa

2002 May 13
by Paul Vallely

It’s now 17 years since Live Aid but Bob Geldof today returns to the subject of Africa and the need for a radical transformation in the West’s relationship with the abandoned continent. Whatever happened to compassion fatigue?

Over the last two decades Geldof has turned down hundreds of requests to help various bodies campaigning for the Third World and attempted to get on with the rest of his life – as a businessman, tv executive, internet entrepreneur, and father to the four girls left in his sole care by the death of their mother, his ex-wife Paula Yates. And he is still pursuing his unchanging determination that his chief satisfaction in life comes from his work as a rock musician.

“I’ve never really stopped doing things for Africa,” Geldof said, speaking after a gig in Foy in Cornwall on Friday. “I’m still Chair of Band Aid Trust. Money still comes in from covenants, wills, and the record keeps selling every Christmas. We distributed a third of a million pounds to projects in Africa in the last three weeks. And then there’s all the lobbying in the background. But I haven’t signed-up to a lot of up-front campaigning.”

This morning, however, he will be going to Downing Street to present the prime minister with a report being published to mark the start of Christian Aid week. The document, ‘Listen to Africa’, which is written as an open letter to Tony Blair, will be given to the prime minister by Geldof and three representatives from Christian Aid-funded organisations in Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi. It addresses the three key concerns – on Conflict, Trade and Aid – which the organisation’s many partner groups throughout Africa have highlighted as the chief concerns facing the continent.

“With the G8 meeting next month in Canada it is a key time to push these issues,” says Geldof. “We need to push Tony Blair to be as bold as he can be. At the risk of sounding complicit with the government both he and Gordon Brown have been incredibly brave and incredibly radical so far in what they have put before the G8.  They got them, at Cologne, to cross the Rubicon of accepting that Third World Debt was, in terms of political reality, unpayable which required an entirely new approach from the rich world. And the Jubilee 2000 movement was a brilliant success in influencing that shift in agenda. But now is the time for the next big push.”

There is more than conviction or instinct behind his view. Geldof and the front man of U2, fellow Irish musician, Bono, have for several years now been working assiduously behind the scenes to change the thinking at the highest political level. They formed a little-publicised pressure group named DATA, which stands for Debt, Aid and Trade for Africa. The two rock stars, together with two full-time campaigners, draw on research by top academics in London and Harvard, in an office paid for by Bill Gates and George Soros, to engage in high-level but low-key lobbying. It has made the two men, who confer with their advisers at least weekly, highly-knowledgeable about the detail of Africa’s economic plight and the West’s attempts to relate to it.

“Bono is the point man. He’s got far more fame than me, particularly in the States where celebrity equals access,” says Geldof. “He is a really smart person. Since Band Aid he has been interested in the issues, but he got involved at the time of Jubilee 2000. Bono is a Christian and jubilee 2020 was largely driven by the churches and the unions.”

Lobbying has brought the two men into meetings with the senior figures in the Bush administration, including George Bush himself, as well as Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and the US treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, with whom Bono and DATA’s two full-time officials, Lucy Matthews and Jamie Drummond, will travel on a fact-finding tour of Africa later this month. “I’ve got gigs, so I can’t go,” says Geldof, in a revealing illustration of the loyalties which now command his life, “but I’ll join them in Canada for the G8.”

Their association with the right-wing US administration has not gone down well with many of the rock world’s right-on thinkers. Bono’s guitarist, Edge, argued that all this Third World stuff was ferociously uncool, and threatened to damage the band’s street-cred, but he particularly pleaded with the pair not to “hang out with the conservatives”. When they began to engage with one of America’s most extreme right-wing senators, Jesse Helms, there were even some in music circles who stopped speaking to Bono and Geldof.

Geldof is unrepentant. “People go on about us supping with the devil,” he says with exasperation, “but what’s the point in supping with God; he’s already on the side of the angels. If the devil wants to cool down the temperature in hell a little to make the lives of the world’s poorest people more bearable, then I say: ‘Pull up my chair to the table’.  It’s a balancing act. We’re constantly debating: ‘should we do this, or that, or have our photo taken with this individual.’ We do what we feel is right. I don’t want be hubristic but our little lobbying group is proving to be quite potent. Attitudes in Washington are shifting.”

The Bush government, he discerns, is “an administration really in search of a foreign policy”. This is particularly so post-September 11. “The Americans are asking: where did this come from? why do people not like us? why don’t they see out point of view.  But the key thing is they’re open to persuasion so long as you’re not asking them to do anything which hurts US interests. They’re ruthless in ruthless in pursuit of that. When it comes to steel tariffs they just impose them. If Kyoto doesn’t suit them they say: ‘It’s bollocks, we’re off’. But they are open to the idea that there are things which can be done which help the poor – and the people who they realise after September 11 see them as an enemy – that don’t hurt the US. We can see that because we’re very much far in there. And f you have the ear you whisper gently.”

Particular leverage has come from the fact that Bono talks to the American Right out of a shared Christian perspective. “Your man Bono is persuasive. Bush has a wellspring in his own constituency who understand the language of moral obligation – that America the great, America the beautiful, has duties to the world,” Geldof says. When Bono met Helms he said to him, directly, that 2103 verses of scripture pertain to the poor and Jesus speaks of judgment only once – and it’s not about being gay or sexual morality, but about poverty. He quoted a verse of Matthew chapter 25: ‘I was naked and you clothed me.’ Helms was really moved. He was in tears. Later he told Bono he was ashamed of what he used to think about Aids.

“He said that he now knew that before he died he was obliged to do something about Aids,” says Geldof. “That’s a real shift, and from a man whose entire previous political life I would have abhorred. People like that want to talk to Bono – plus they get the autograph for their daughter.”

But moral outrage is not the only weapon in the duo’s armoury. “We work on deep info, we make sure we’re really across the detail so that we have the answers to whatever arguments the politicians civil servants come up with. And we start where they are, asking: ‘Look, what’s the downside for the US of doing this or that. We start from US self-interest and argue that keeping the Third World poor only feeds problems of immigration at home. We show that for the US and Europe to spend more than the entire GDP of Africa on farm subsidies makes no financial sense. We point out that even Adam Smith talks of the need for the protection of infant industries, which is what the World Trade Organisation should be nurturing in Africa, instead of undermining them.”

He and Bono, he says, have become “the Laurel and Hardy of Third World Debt”. “We play soft cop, hard cop because in the end I always lose my patience and he’s always eminently reasonable. You find that people like Condie Rice – who’s a really smart person, very funny and a lovely woman – are wide open to coherent intellectual argument.”

Now the message to the White House and Downing St will be to Listen to Africa. “Everyone in Africa knows that the only aid projects which didn’t end as expensive white elephants are the ones that listened to local people. 

Now, the Christian Aid report says, the rich nations must commit more resources to finding a solution to the military conflicts in Africa, as well as to the massive damage which Aids is wreaking throughout the continent. They must talk not about free trade but about trade which discriminates in favour of the poorest to allow infant industries to grow there. And they should honour their commitments to raise overseas aid budgets to 0.7 per cent of the national wealth of the industrialised world. Much of this money must then be focused on community-based development initiatives which put Africans in the driving seat. 

“At the end of every argument about Africa is the reality that nothing will improve if the basics – health, education and primary agriculture – aren’t sorted out,” says Geldof. “Not that he agrees with everything in the report, such as its insistence that aid should not be tied to the requirement that African countries follow specified economic policies. “You have to lay down conditions, otherwise you have no counter to the argument that, without them, the Africans would just blow all the fucking money.” With Geldof, the maverick, some things it seems do not change.


The Independent, 13 May 2002







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