When G8 finance ministers announced last month a £40bn debt relief package for some of the world’s poorest countries, Bob Geldof praised it as “a victory for the millions of people in the campaign around the world”. Bono called it “a little piece of history”. Forget the immoral condition of enforced liberalisation and privatisation that it contained. That was not all. Bono went on to hail George W Bush as the saviour of Africa. “I think he has done an incredible job”, he pronounced, adding: “Bush deserves a place in history for turning the fate of the continent around.” He came across as serious. Does Bono know that the US is the lowest aid donor in the industrialised world, giving only 0.16 per cent of GNP? Does he not care about climate change and about Bush’s role as serial environmental abuser? Maybe he has forgotten.
The mutual admiration club between Bono, Geldof, Blair and Bush – rock stars and men who would love to be them – has been the abiding symbol of the G8. It is deeply disturbing. It has nothing to do with the commitment and the passionate argument of the 225,000 people who took to the streets of Edinburgh on 2 July encircling the centre of Scotland’s capital to protest against global injustice. This demonstration – at which I was a speaker – provided the real backdrop, the real pressure for change. Not that many people, particularly those south of the border, would have known. Saturation television that day from Live8 in Hyde Park beamed pictures from as far away as Philadelphia, Berlin and Tokyo – cities united in superficial soundbites about desperately serious issues. The newspapers fared little better.
Edinburgh was nowhere to be seen. Was it inadvertent, or did our celebrity musicians conspire to allow the biggest demonstration of people power in Scotland’s history and the biggest march against poverty the UK has seen to be erased from the public’s consciousness? When Gordon Brown announced his intention to take part in the Edinburgh March I was appalled. I finally understood the Machiavellian plan by prime minister and chancellor to neutralise and co-opt the efforts of hundreds of NGOs, grassroots organisations and people throughout the world united in their desire to see poverty eradicated. They achieved their aims with the help of Geldof and Bono. I know that we need to persuade politicians, but do we really need to sleep with the enemy?
For years thousands of people have campaigned to draw the public’s attention to the harm globalisation has done to the developing world and to expose the unjust policies of the unholy Trinity – the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organisation. All of a sudden Brown wanted to march hand in hand with us. Was he going to protest against the policies the UK government was imposing on the poorest countries in the developing world? Was he aware the UK government has been instrumental in pushing an aggressive “free trade” agenda at the WTO, disregarding developing countries’ pleas that they should be allowed to defend their infant industries from predatory EU and US multinationals?
Was he not aware that the UK also stands behind the damaging Economic Partnership Agreements designed to open markets, in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, exposing small scale producers to overwhelming competition from powerful multinationals? Is he aware that the UK has taken the lead in promoting privatisation of public services in developing countries, despite the increase in poverty this has brought to million of peoples in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere? Does he not know that the department for International Development has channelled millions from the aid budget to privatisation consultants such as KPMG, Price WaterhouseCoopers and the Adam Smith Institute, engaged to “advise” developing country governments on the privatisation of their public services? What about the UK government’s efforts to undermine international calls to hold multinational corporations to account for their activities overseas, championing the voluntary alternative of “corporate social responsibility” rather than corporate regulation? Then come the arms industry, and Britain’s seemingly unquenchable thirst to sell to the poorest and most volatile of dictatorships.
After all the excitement of the Live8 crowd, and the self-congratulation of the organisers for what we should acknowledge was perhaps the greatest rock music spectacle the world has seen, what will have been achieved? Beside the thrill of seeing some of the greatest artist alive perform, has Blair, the same politician who misled the world over WMD in Iraq, managed to reinvent his legacy as the prophet of the social justice movement? Has the consciousness of the world really been raised, or have the consciences of the political leaders simply been soothed?
In Scotland, we were making concrete demands from the G8 leaders, to stop imposing the neoliberal policies that have contributed to exacerbating poverty in the developing world; perhaps our aims were a little too unsettling, and a little too unpalatable, for Bono and Bob. By ignoring the real issues in the Make Poverty History Campaign and by embracing politicians with uncritical enthusiasm, they have undermined the real movement for change, helping to preserve the cycle that keeps the developing world subjugated to the financial institutions that are making poverty inevitable.
You may wonder why I feel so deeply about these issues, I was born in one of the 18 countries in the debt relief package; Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the southern Hemisphere. Throughout my life I have seen first hand the devastating effect that poverty has on children’s lives. For me, witnessing the death of a child is not just a dramatic click of a finger, it is a terrible tragedy. Bono and Bob Geldof’s blind ambition has led them to legitimise and praise George W. Bush and Tony Blair, perpetrators of the objectionable policies that are causing the demise of millions of innocent people throughout the developing world. Although, one cannot deny they have succeeded in bringing attention to Africa, one feels betrayed by their moral ambiguity and sound bite propaganda which have obscured and watered down the real issues that are at stake in the debate.
Originally published in the New Statesman