Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bono's Lament for Africa- Critiquing the Best of Intentions

U2 frontman and anti-poverty activist Bono lamented this week that the world's industrial nations are not fulfilling their promises of aid to Africa's poor made at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2004. A new report compiled by his advocacy group DATA (Debt Aids Trade Africa) pointed out that the G8 is way off target on aid to Africa, having increased aid by $2.3 billion since 2004, when the Gleneagles commitment showed it should have risen by $5.4 billion. This is not the first time Bono has walked away disappointed. After meeting with the incoming Democratic House and Senate in December of 2006, he expressed "alarm" that he could not get the US Congressional leaders to keep up their commitment to aiding Africa. Still full of disappointment, Bono has stated he will remind the G8 financial ministers of their commitments to Africa at an upcoming meeting in Germany.

Bono… Bono… Bono… Where do I begin?

First off, let me say that overall I think Bono is the "real deal." That is, I think the rock star truly is moved by issues of poverty and AIDS in Africa. Sure there is something bizarre and ironic about a rich white guy flying around in private jets and staying in posh residences all the while claiming he wants to end global poverty—about as paradoxical as Oprah Winfrey's wonderfully generous gift of opening up a school in South Africa for impoverished young girls, but then disparaging the black youth of America as driven by materialism, when she controls a powerful media empire that endorses material consumption and capitalism (rewarding audience members with free cars and inviting them to peek into lavish birthday celebrations of the elite) as part of living a better, happier, fulfilling life. Maybe money makes the wealthy blind to their own hypocrisies. Nevertheless, I believe Bono is trying to do what he thinks will help. And for that he should be commended. I'm certain his actions have made a difference in many peoples lives. However, what I think his good intentions suffer from is a pragmatic approach that exposes a depth of incredible naiveté, failing to get at the heart of the matter and worse still, allowing those who control the reins of global power to avoid any real responsibility.

The push to free modern postcolonial Africa of poverty predates Bono. Numerous transnational movements and organizations have long formed networks demanding that issues of AIDS and poverty engulfing much of Africa be acknowledged by various wealthier nations and world bodies. Most forcefully, there has been strong activism to rid Africa of strangling debt. Groups like Africa Action and 50 Years is Enough in fact have argued that these debts are illegal, what they called odious debts—part of rich nations' policies that date back to the Cold War and the post-colonial era, giving massive "loans" with soaring high interest rates to corrupt leaders as political pay-offs and bribes, and now holding the citizens of those countries responsible for monies they never benefited from. The Democratic Republic of Congo stands out as a prime example, where the dictator Sekou Mobutu amassed large loans that conveniently found its way into European banks, while miring the country in billions in debt. These were not mere acts of theft, but part of a global system that willingly gave to leaders like Mobutu who carried out the bidding of the West. In the past 30 years in fact, Africa's loan debt has skyrocketed a stunning 400%.

More outrageous still, is that many African countries have become so mired in debt they are paying out more to their creditors than can be spent on their own development. Zambia for instance pays out more in debt to its rich creditor nations (including Western controlled institutions like the IMF and World Bank) than it spends on its entire healthcare budget; more than it spends on its schools, roads and infrastructure. These loans often come with gross stipulations that may for instance allow poor country A to purchase large items (like machinery) from rich nation B that issued the loan, but not the necessary tools or parts to fix that machinery. So when something breaks down, poor country A might actually have to get another loan from rich country B to purchase a new machine. These types of unethical schemes result in a need for more loans and thus incur more debt. Written into many of these exploitative deals—along with payoffs to the right officials—are also policies that allow rich nations to control the infrastructure of the poor countries that are in debt to them, or allow an unfair advantage that creates lopsided trade agreements. Debt thus not only hinders many poor nations from investing in their own infrastructure—schools, hospitals, roads—but severely negates their political and economic sovereignty, allowing the rich nations of the world to dictate policies that induce more poverty, creating systemic cultures of corruption and contributes to the usually attendant factors of hunger, conflict and disease.

Trade itself has also been a hotly contentious topic of the more established anti-poverty activists. While the neoliberal policies of globalization have pushed free markets, many activists have demanded * fair * markets and Fair Trade. Currently, powerful nations—using loans and aid and payoffs—have been able to strong arm the trade partnership with Africa. It allows for a grossly unequal system that allows for wealthy nations to hand out billions in subsidies to its own farmers while forcing Africa to lay open its markets bare. As the West floods the markets of poor African nations with cheaper goods—from chicken to cotton—local markets are wiped out, destroying the livelihoods of millions of farmers and thus adding to the ranks of poverty and domestic instability. Worse still, African nations lose control over their own domestic policies.

The food crisis that struck Niger in 2005 is a choice example. In order for the Niger government to receive loans and some meager form of debt relief from the G8 countries, it had to do away with long established emergency food hand outs to the poor—as part of neoliberal economic reforms that call for less state programs and more of a focus on profit. Attempting to prove its subservience to the G8 policies, Niger instead offered millet at subsidized prices which the poor could not afford. When a severe drought stuck the country in 2005, food that would have been available to feed the poor was nonexistent—and 3.6 million people faced starvation. The Niger government, fearful of a backlash from the G8 if it broke away from the disastrous imposed neoliberal model, continued to hold back on free food distribution. Only when things reached such a level of crisis that anti-poverty activists forced Western news media to pay attention, did the G8 back off and allow Niger to carry out its state feeding program to the poor.

While Bono, and other celebrity causes such as the ONE Campaign, certainly speak out about debt and trade, they have beocme decidedly more low-key about it over the years. What is focused on the most is the notion of "aid." Yet much like the odious debt that strangles Africa, efforts at "aid" are at times illusory. "Aid" to African countries from rich nations has often been as mired in exploitative politics as loans and trade. To receive "aid" one has to be a country in good standing. Good standing is often defined publicly as one free of corruption and engaging in democracy. In reality however, this is often code for a nation that agrees to follow dictates and policies of who ever gives them "aid." This can be anything from following the lead of rich nations at the UN, in trade negotiations, etc., opening up their small fragile markets to competition from goods like genetically modified seeds that may wipe out local agricultural industries or allowing multinational corporations to use one's seas and land to dump toxic waste.

In one of the most ironic twists, "Aid" can even come with stipulations demanding a poor country only spend the money it is given buying goods from the nation who gave the "Aid" in the first place! A report in 2005 found that for every $1 the United States gave in "Aid," it made back 86 cents simply by forcing poor nations to purchase goods made in America. Add in the numerous political strings that probably came with the receipt of "Aid," and you have a situation where rich nations are engaging in what the report called global "political grandstanding." In this way wealthy nations and their corporations can put on a great appearance of "helping the poor" while at the same time keeping the same global economic rules in place that allow them to exploit those very same poor, extracting billions in goods and resources far beyond what any "aid" provides.

And herein lays one of the most unsettling issues I've had with Bono and groups like ONE. These celebrity pushes to get people involved in global anti-poverty campaigns have been phenomenal. But they have come at a cost. In order to get many of us in rich nations, and our leaders, to pay heed to the world's poor these groups have muted any calls for responsibility on our side of the world. Rather than pointing out how the global economy that we live in, that our nations endorse and create, strangle the world's poor, we are told instead to feel sorry for Africa. We are shown pictures that tug at our hearts, at our minds, and appeals to our humanity. But we are not told to feel any responsibility. We are shown the starving faces of Niger, but not the machinations of our own nations in helping cause that starvation.

If we have guilt, it is only in that we have so much and they have so little. We are not told however to connect that the very reason we have so much—from the mineral rich coltan mines in war ravaged Congo in our cell phones to giant ocean trawlers (so-called "fish factories") that are now clear-cutting the African seafloor and pushing local fisherman off Mali and other nations into poverty—is rooted in the fact that others have so little. It is we who are strangling the world's poor, to meet our needs, our way of living. As one scientist put it, if the rest of the world were to live like we do in the West, we'd need another 3 Earths. We don't see our nations' responsibility in pushing exploitative loans in order to maintain the global political economy that ensures we can keep up our present culture of trade dominance and rapacious consumption. Our role in all of this is minimized to near the point of negation. Places like Africa are poor in our imaginations, solely because of bad leadership and rotten luck. No one wants to ask, if Western nations like Belgium and the United States sponsored and helped orchestrate the overthrow of the Democratic Congo's elected leader Patrece Lumumba, and then helped keep its dictator Mobutu in power, what measure of responsibility do they bear for years of repression, not to mention a disastrous war from 1998-2003 (shamefully ignored by the world) that would leave some 4 million people dead? We just tell those who do to "shut up and take our charity."

Of course, I do recognize that the recipients of "charity" may not care about such things. I have the benefit of a full belly and health insurance to sit back and make my criticisms. Yet that is my point—the gratitude of those who are in need should not be used as the measuring stick of the justness of our global system. What is more, by not acknowledging the West's culpability in many of the dire issues facing much of Africa, the depictions of a "dark" and "troubled" continent filled with endless human misery and backwardness—something even many well-meaning liberals engage in—are allowed to fester. Rather than seeing Africa's poverty as a problem with definitive historical and contemporary causes of the modern world, these issues are instead made somehow "naturally endemic" to the continent—as if it's peoples and cultures have known no other form of existence; as if it currently resides in a vacuum outside the global political economy; as if colonialism had never happened; as if indigenous states and forms of government (from Mali to Zimbabwe) had never existed at all; as if things have just always been this way. It is an Africa wiped clean of a functioning past and literally inverted and shaped to fit the West's imagination, a place of naturally "savage" wars and naturally brutal dictators that erupt sui genesis—Conrad's Heart of Darkness brought to life and thus erasing any form of responsibility by external actors. This perception of Africa is not only as dangerous as the dire issues that plague the continent, but is directly related. It is a form of racism that allows for the expectation of the worst to come out of Africa, the exotic, the threatening, the bizarre—and then similarly allows for policy to be shaped to fit those expectations.

I can understand why Bono and others take their soft-shoe approach. The frontman of U2 is no fool. He's well aware of all of this. But he has opted for a pragmatic approach because as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. So rather than laying a great deal of well deserved blame at the feet of rich nations, instead there are calls for such nations to be more "generous." But the cost of this tactic can be tremendous. By not acknowledging the role of the West, of the rich nations, in Africa's current dilemma, and allowing us to wear white wristbands touting our gracious charity, a crime of epic proportions is being committed. Africa remains portrayed as a basket case continent, filled with never-ending seeming misery that has always been so and which can only be saved by good people (mostly white, naturally) in the West. This perversion of reality is akin to setting fire to someone's house and then congratulating yourself when you show up outside their smoldering ruins with blankets and hot chocolate. And it proved the perfect tool for the G8.

The calls for rich nations to erase debt, make trade fair and stop their strangle hold on Africa had been growing increasingly leading up to the G8 summit in 2005. From the famed Battle in Seattle at the WTO in 1999 to the many anti-poverty movements that melded into anti-war protests worldwide, the cries were getting stronger. The G8 and other world bodies like the IMF and World Bank (which these same nations control) knew concessions would have to be made, but had no intentions of doing anything radical. Enter an Irish rock star with a big heart and a pragmatic approach. Using Bono and other celebrities as shields from other more forceful and long established vocal activists, rich nations made pledges and commitments that in the end amounted to very little—but allowed for great photo-ops and allowed millions of "Johnny and Suzy come lately" anti-globalization activists to wave their white ONE bands happily while at grand concerts none of the world's poor could ever attend. Some more established activists who made alliances with Bono were described as "embarrassed" that the U2 frontman believed something had been accomplished at the G8 Summit of 2005. Trade campaigner John Hilary pointed out that the results of that summit actually set the movement towards fair trade "backwards." Salih Booker at Africa Action probably summed up the disappointment of the more established activists in his strong worded statement that July:

This G-8 plan is inadequate and a contemptuous response to African demands for justice. It is an unapologetic confirmation of the global apartheid system, in which the most impoverished continent bankrolls the development of the rich world. Their announcement to increase aid to Africa is the greatest hoax of our time. While they trumpet miniscule increases in development assistance, they continue to extract billions of dollars a year in debt repayments from countries excluded from this diminutive debt deal.

And so here we are a mere two years later, and the G8 and the World Bank and IMF have done very little even to stand by the meager pledges it made in 2005. Bono and his pragmatic allies had countered anti-poverty critics back then by saying a first step had been achieved, and more was certainly to come. Now it seems the U2 frontman is finding out that in actuality he may have been taken for a ride, allowing himself to believe that power would concede with "pleases" and "may i?" rather than forceful demands. When Bono goes back to make his case, he might want to keep some of the following in mind.

Tell the G8 that Africa does not need more deceptive "aid" or odious "loans" or debilitating neoliberal "free market policies." Africa does not require a charity or a handout. Rather it is owed for decades of past exploitation, with trade that is FAIR and allows its people to prosper. Africa's debt need not be "forgiven," but cancelled, and a real Marshall Plan of epic proportions should be undertaken by the UN in which its past exploiters are forced to contribute to help set things right—with African solutions being used first and foremost to tackle African problems. If the U.S. could pressure the IMF and World Bank to erase Iraq's debt gathered under their former ally Saddam Hussein, why can they not do the same for so much of Africa? If "freedom is on the march," then free Africa of the vultures who have too long helped strip the continent bare. If Africa is to be portrayed as victims, have the guts and strength to call out the victimizers. The West is not responsible for all of Africa's problems, but our hands are certainly not clean—not by far.

To Bono's celebrity friends at ONE, American Idol and elsewhere, the one-dimensional image of Africa as a helpless, inept, and continually war-torn continent mired in disease and famine needs to find a balance that provides a more realistic portrayal. Lagos, Nigeia is a teeming metropolis. At night Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire is lit up like NYC. In some parts of Africa people may even live in suburbs, attend universities and find ways to celebrate their culture while pushing for a fair chance at modernity. Sure there are also slums, rural villages lacking basic things like clean water and other dire symptoms of poverty--but the overall picture is much more complex. Start pointing out the vast mineral and human potential of Africa. Depicting Africa as an "exotic" land even with the most well-meaning campaigns (I am African) is not only embarrassingly offensive, but helps engender the very sentiments that so easily marginalizes an entire continent of human beings. Start involving the voices in Africa (not just the ones we're familiar with in the west, like Iman) attempting to bring change, like Wangari Maathai or those at the World Social Forum—the continent doesn't need any more missionaries. Take a look at PBS's AFRICA. Attend African film festivals which can be illuminating on African social life and politics. Support one like FESPACO held in Burkina Faso each year. Getting ourselves to understand that those we seek to help aren't "projects" but people, just like us, might go a long way in bringing the continent that gave birth to humanity more humane treatment.


a.k.a. Zooomabooma said...


Some tremendous observations there. Question, though: Is this the extent of your voicing of opinion? One of the problems with blogs and internet forums is a million people can complain and come up with constructive criticism and their own solutions... but caring without action doesn't do a damn thing.

Have you thought of actually mailing a letter to Bono and to Queen Oprah? You might think, "They'll never read it," or "They won't care." Do you know that?

I'm not criticizing you, I'm trying to encourage others to do more than blog, to actually reach out. One can never know if their words in a letter might affect the way someone thinks.

There are problems everywhere that many of us would like to see fixed yesterday, last week, a year ago, etc. Many places the problems are a hundred times worse than here or there but it takes action, not just blogging, to bring about change.

Know what I mean? If 500 people have a complaint but no one brings that complaint to someone who can do something to fix the problem... ain't nothin' gonna get done! Same thing with blogs.

That's one hell of a post and perhaps you are one who does work to solve problems like those you addressed. But if not then please speak up 'cause it's apparent you're one who does give a damn about the extreme suffering of others.

Nefernubia said...

Hmmm ok ,now I want to point out that by stating the truth is a revolutionary act within itself. Also by stating the truth, you liberate others as you inform them. True revolutionaries will in turn will use the information provided and then instead of it being just "one" you gain the attention of many!

Not to knock your argument about "doing something" but were you inspired to do something? do you do something besides complain about people such as morpheus? hmmm.

My comment is to address the main issue at hand.This blog is dope cause its coming from a perspective we rarely hear about!! Yes maybe M. should take it to Larry King Live,yet words have power. SERIOUS POWER!!! Maybe Morpheus chooses to stay alive. lol

Ok Ok back to the subject at hand. I just got a little heated. It is my own personal way of life to highlight the positive and with all that being said, let me just say, I COMPLETELY CONCUR WITH THIS BLOG!

We cannot focus on the oppressed without taking notice to the oppressor. Until you stop the oppressor they and we will always be oppressed. The rain does s not fall on one mans house! As long as they get over on Africa they can get over anywhere, cause its most apparent and on front street in the motherland.

Back to my intelligent, it happens here in the slums of America. So what is your opinion on when you see AFRICANS drowning in New Orleans and you have your hip-hoppers going the same route Bono did (besides Kanye of course)? lol

Nefernubia said...

its Arica's greedy bastards as well!!