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Of fading rock stars and little else

I found myself in London over the last momentous fortnight, the euphoria of the Live 8 concert and successful Olympic bid being shattered by the ghastly terrorist bombings that eclipsed the Gleneagles summit.

The Live 8 campaign by Bob Geldof, the narcissistic fading rock star, ”to make poverty history” was naively admirable but also somewhat disturbing to watch. Here was a dynamic individual who was helping to perpetuate the stereotype of the ”dark continent” as a helpless place of poverty and disease which the white musical missionaries of a new age would help to overcome.

Geldof’s stubborn refusal to include African singers on the lily-white stage was breathtakingly insensitive. The blacks wheeled out as props on stage were famine victims and school-children in a drama in which whites remained the main actors in another African ”tragedy”. It was therefore a relief to see Nelson Mandela addressing the Johannesburg concert, which was hardly given any airtime in Britain. A documentary titled Geldof in Africa showed the pop star waltzing around Ethiopia in a hat and scruffy clothes, mouthing generalisations about ”Africa” and ”modernity” encroaching on the continent.

The fact that two rock stars — Geldof and U2’s Bono — are at the forefront of these campaigns is the clearest sign of the poverty of genuine leadership on these issues.

On the G8 meeting itself, there had been euphoric talk about a ”Marshall Plan” for Africa and an almost Alice-in-Wonderland expectation that this club of eight rich men would somehow be swayed by the tuneful ballads of musicians into ”saving” Africa from itself. Though Britain’s energy was admirable, in the end, what has sometimes been described as Tony Blair’s ”muscular born-again Christianity” failed to find sufficient converts to the faith.

The ”holy trinity” of trade, debt and aid dominated the discussions on Africa. The Gleneagles accord promised to ”begin” to lift Western export subsidies that harm African agricultural products; to double aid to Africa to $50-billion by 2010; and to write off $55-billion of debt. There were also promises to support African peacekeeping; the battle against Aids; and infrastructure projects. But, as usual, the devil was in the detail: there was no timetable for eliminating farm subsidies; only about a third of the promised aid is new money; and, based on recent experience, future fiscally conscious Western governments are unlikely to honour these pledges.

The debt write-off for Africa represents only a drop in a large debt ocean of $300-billion. Geldof incensed his fellow campaigners by arrogantly awarding the summit ”10 out of 10” on aid, ”eight out of 10” on debt and ”a serious and excellent result on trade”, before dismissing critics as a ”disgrace”. A more circumspect Blair described Gleneagles as ”progress”, but warned against overselling the deal.

Africa has a large stake in a more equitable global economy. Unfair trade practices by the rich world have undoubtedly made it harder for African countries to grow out of poverty. Agricultural subsidies in the West of $311-billion in 2001 exceeded the national income of sub-Saharan Africa of $301-billion.

Even as subsidies and tariffs cripple Africa’s economic prospects, the rich world has become less generous with development assistance.

Only the Scandinavians and Dutch have matched the target of 0,7% of the gross national income of donors set as far back as 1970. Despite France’s frequent attempts to portray itself as a champion of African interests, not only has its aid fallen far short of its rhetoric, London is correct in criticising Paris’s insistence on maintaining profligate agricultural subsidies.

So, what is to be done? The food mountains of the rich must be demolished and the dumping of agricultural products on the poor halted. Fortress Europe must tear down its ramparts, while Uncle Sam must stop feeding its gluttonous, corpulent farmers more subsidies lest they choke on this poison.

These must be done not just out of some altruistic feeling of charity, but to take advantage of the potential of trade with an African market of 850-million consumers. Otherwise, all the recent efforts of musicians, politicians and activists will turn out simply to have been much ado about nothing.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town

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