Bittersweet Symphony

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Bittersweet Symphony

Stephen Marshall

This summer, concert goers will get a chance to save the world by rocking out to loud music and buying Earth-friendly cotton t-shirts. The Live Earth concert for our "climate in crisis" will surely raise the profile of environmentalism, but will it actually drive its audience to understand the root causes of the problem? After all, it's been nearly two years since ten simultaneous Live 8 concerts were held across the world to raise awareness for African poverty, and if that event is any indicator, we shouldn't expect much beyond the hype and sparkle that does more for aging rockers than the designated cause du jour.

Timed to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of his original Live Aid concert, Bob Geldof hoped the Live 8 event would pressure leaders of the G8 countries (U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Japan, U.S., Canada and Russia) into canceling the debt of the world's most impoverished nations. Though it has never been easy to get politicians to do anything for the poor, Geldof felt his chances were good since he had the ear of the G8's new president, U.K. prime minister Tony Blair.

Back in 1985, when he was still an aspiring socialist and junior member of the British Labour party, Tony Blair attended Live Aid. Years later, he told Geldof that the experience had shaped his vision of African policy and so, in 2004, Geldof persuaded Blair to head an examination of African poverty and the role the international community has played in its tragic history. The study was titled the Blair Commission for Africa and focused on debt relief and increased aid as the most direct means of alleviating the "living wound" of Africa's plight. The next step, Blair and Geldof decided, would be to convince the leaders of the world's seven richest nations (G7 plus Russia = G8) to commit to the Blair Commission program. And what better way to force these politicians into a deal than to get a billion people involved in the process. So, as Blair got set to host the G8 summit at a golf course in Scotland, Geldof called Bono, Madonna and Pink Floyd, trucked his speakers into London's Hyde Park and invited the world to the show.

I sat among "thousands of millions," as Bob Geldof put it, watching the concerts from their homes. Switching between MTV and AOL's live-to-net broadcast of the concerts in London, Paris, Berlin, Toronto, Philly, Rome, I hummed along with a roster of stars that, as much as they tried, just couldn't muster the earnest save-the-world insurgent spirit that had made Live Aid such a global phenomenon. Watching Kate Moss' then-boyfriend Pete Doherty wander deliriously onto the stage and then barely get through a shrill rendition of T-Rex's classic Children of the Revolution seemed like the symbolic moment. For a generation that has the world at its fingertips, which truly lives in a virtual global village, they have less sensitivity and connection to the plight of starving Africans than the kids did 20 years ago.

Sure, everyone wore their white wristbands, cosmetic evidence of their unity with the campaign to Make Poverty History. But in a development that was symbolic of the disconnect between the glossy, star-driven first world campaign and the soul-draining struggle of the global poor, it was later reported that millions of the bands were produced in Chinese sweatshops where workers are paid 25 cents an hour. As usual, the intentions were good, but you know what they say about the road to hell. And the irony wasn't lost on many in the Western media. When Geldof announced the concerts on CNN, declaring they were "dealing with the roots of that poverty," critics assailed him for assembling a "hideously white" roster that only included two African-born performers. Many saw it as a ploy to raise the sagging profile of old, unfashionable rock stars like The Who, Paul McCartney and Duran Duran, while others charged that it was the rock stars who were being used by the G8 politicians.

Bono brushed off the latter criticism, saying "Is there some degree of being used here? Yes. But I am not a cheap date, and neither is Bob Geldof." Which may well be true. As a result of the Live 8 and Make Poverty History campaigns, the G8 agreed to cancel the debt of the world's eighteen poorest nations and double 2004 levels of aid to Africa from U.S.$25 to U.S.$50 billion by the year 2010. But when this failed to impress the very Africans Live 8 was created to benefit, neither Bono nor Geldof had any snappy comebacks.

"One should not be surprised," wrote the African scholar Samir Amin in his Liberal Virus, "that at the very moment when capitalism appears to be completely victorious, 'the fight against poverty' has become an unavoidable obligation of the rhetoric of the dominant groups."

It's something that the Western media missed entirely. Here we were, fifteen years after end of the Cold War, long after capitalism has been declared the world's ideological victor, still focused on world poverty. And, with a situation in Africa no better than twenty years ago when the last world aid music event was held. Now, of course, many would say that it is not the fault of liberalism that African countries have not been able to institute sustainable fiscal policies. And that would be true if there wasn't a long legacy of liberal economic intervention on the continent of Africa, much of it designed around the goal of relieving poverty. So what's wrong with this picture?

Samir Amin claims that for representatives of the World Bank, IMF and rock stars like Bono and Bob Geldof, poverty is only ever seen as an empirical measurement, one that can be conquered through mathematical reasoning. Increase aid, remove the debt… problem solved. But this is just rock star economics. The reason nothing has changed for Africans since the last time Geldof and Bono beamed their message into hundreds of millions of homes worldwide is that they have been sucked into playing the game of the G8 leaders. They discuss poverty without challenging the methods and mechanisms that generate it.

Now, for Amin the Marxist, the foundations of African poverty are deep and advancement is a treacherous road, obstructed by the evils of capitalism. But it wasn't just the far left that was questioning Live 8. Two weeks after the concerts, the New York Times published an op-ed by Cameroonian journalist Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme which essentially built on Amin's criticism, but from a different perspective.

"Our anger is all the greater because," Tonme wrote, "we didn't hear anyone at Live 8 raise a cry for democracy in Africa. Africa's real problem is the lack of freedom of expression, the usurpation of power, the brutal oppression… Don't they understand that fighting poverty is fruitless if dictatorships remain in place?"

At a time when the armies of America and Britain are supposedly fighting anti-democratic insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, these words should have stung the eyes of pro-war liberals who applauded the debt relief program as a crucial step toward ending poverty.

"Neither debt relief nor huge amounts of food aid nor an invasion of experts will change anything," wrote Tonme in the Times. "Those will merely prop up the continent's dictators… We would have preferred for the musicians in Philadelphia and London to have marched and sung for political revolution."

But revolution is hardly the kind of thing that Geldof's government-friendly spectacle was designed to inspire. The closest anyone got was a Versace-clad Madonna singing "Music makes the people come together. Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebels come together." And there's good reason for that. Because revolution in countries like Cameroon, Chad and Togo would demand overthrowing leaders who have a long relationship with the IMF and World Bank. Leaders who, according to John Perkins, the "Economic Hit Man" turned best-selling author, are given huge sums of money that are never expected to be repaid "because the nonpayment is what gives us our leverage, our pound of flesh."

Working for the international consulting firm of Chas T. Main, Perkins' job was to create optimistic financial projections for developing countries that would justify huge IMF and World Bank loans. Though the money was supposedly lent to recipient nations for infrastructural development, much of it never left the United States since it went directly to Main or other U.S. construction and engineering companies like Bechtel or Halliburton which were contracted to do the work. More importantly, Perkins writes in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, he would bring in such high loans that it would drive the countries bankrupt and they would be "forever beholden to their creditors, and… would present easy targets when they needed favors, including military bases, U.N. votes, or access to oil and other natural resources."

"It's a sham, it's a subterfuge," he says solemnly.

Perkins views the recent pledges by the G8 to Make Poverty History as the latest chapter in this legacy of economic entrapment.

"This program to forgive debt in eighteen nations, with another twenty-two on the back burner, that's an amazing tool of economic hit men. I believe totally in debt forgiveness, but this is not about debt forgiveness. Every one of those countries is being asked to allow American corporations or international corporations to privatize their electric and water systems and many of their other resources. They are asked to accept the trade barriers we have in the United States and the other G8 countries and yet not keep their own trade barriers to protect their markets from our products. So we are using this debt forgiveness ploy as a way to get them more entrenched in the empire. It's a very, very subtle and effective economic hit man tool and yet, most people don't seem to realize that."

Just one month after the G8 leaders made their highly publicized vow to cancel debt for the poorest eighteen countries, a document leaked from the World Bank severely undermined the credibility of their promise. Penned by Geoff Lamb, the bank's vice president for concessional finance, the document explained that "most countries receiving 100 per cent debt cancellation would be classified as 'green light' and therefore become eligible for new borrowing." Even more damning is Lamb's reference to a G8 document instructing that those nations receiving debt relief should be "eased into new borrowing." According to Perkins, this borrowing will then funnel right back into projects earmarked for Western companies.

Commenting on the leak, Dave Timms of the World Development Movement (WDM) said the World Bank was essentially "asking the executive directors how quickly they can get the countries that receive debt relief back into patterns of borrowing and back into debt." A World Bank spokesman dismissed the controversy, describing the document as "an informal and preliminary presentation."

But what about Perkins' assertion that, as a condition of the debt relief, these countries would be forced into privatizing their resources and lowering trade barriers? A quick glance at the Blair Commission report, the U.K. government's analysis of African poverty that formed the basis for Bob Geldof's partnership with Tony Blair in Live 8, is telling. Its opening line states that, "for its part, Africa must accelerate reform." Reform, of course, is a code word for privatize. Clearly, despite all the nice talk, this is still the modus operandi for the neoliberal forces of globalization. In September 2005, a report published by WDM showed that of the I.M.F. and World Bank's official poverty reduction strategies (P.R.S.P.'s), which enforce conditions for debt relief, loans and aid on a country-to-country basis, "90 per cent contain privatisation measures… and over 70 per cent include trade liberalisation." Trade liberalization is another euphemism for lowering of trade barriers.

A report from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs explained the G8 "debt relief" scheme this way: "Candidates seeking debt relief are caught in a classic Catch-22 dilemma: in order to relieve poverty they must institutionalize the circumstances that created it in the first place. This compromise does not end when external debts are finally relieved. Rather, countries must continue to conform to IMF/World Bank expectations in order to win the good credit ratings that are the password for attracting foreign investments."

Finally, I decided to do a random check on one African country that was scheduled for debt relief — the New York Times op-ed writer Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme's beloved Cameroon. In October 2005, just four months after Live 8, Cameroon announced that it "plans to privatise its state airline, water utility and telecommunications company as part of an IMF-backed economic reform programme aimed at obtaining debt relief."

This piece was excerpted from Stephen Marshall's new book, Wolves in Sheep's Clothing. Stephen is a writer and award-winning filmmaker. A founder of Guerrilla News Network, he is coauthor of the book True Lies (Plume) with GNN colleague Anthony Lappé. He is the director of the feature film This Revolution, documentary features such as Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge, and controversial, politicized music videos for the Beastie Boys, Eminem and 50 Cent. Over the span of his career, he has traveled and worked in more than 80 countries. He lives in New York City. Visit

Copyright © 2007 Stephen Marshall

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