Monday, July 11, 2005

Live 8

Isaac asks,
Are people talking about farm subsidies right now simply as a neo-liberal reaction to Live 8?
Between that and Tony Blair's push for debt forgiveness at G8, yes. Britain has been getting a lot of attention as of late (G8, Live8, the Olympics, and now the bombings), and deservedly so. There are increasing returns to such attention: never was one story reported without a mention of the others. Anyway, something had to fill the media vacuum between the Michael Jackson trial is over and Hurricane Dennis.

In any case, I watched an hour or two of the Live8 concerts on MTV and I must say that, as suspected, there was a great incongruity between what was happening and what was being said. There was Jay-Z's "Remember, we came here for a cause...but enough politics, let's play some music." And Mariah Carey's "It's the Children's Choir of Africa, y'all!" after they joined her on stage. Perhaps worst of all was Good Charlotte's rendition of "Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous" with the lyrics "Well they've got mansions / I think we should rob them." (Of course that song has always been incongruous since Good Charlotte are, in fact, rich and famous.)

There was one Japanese artist whose name I didn't catch, but was really awful. She appeared to be improvising, but she clearly had no talent for it and a very whiny voice to boot. It bothers me that "Hey Jude" is now just a crowd-pleasing chant, rather than a song. It was the last part of Paul McCartney's set and he didn't even sing the verses, he went straight to the "naaa naa naa na na na naa, na na na naa, hey Jude" part. Parts of the concert were amazing, however, particularly Pink Floyd's reunion set.

I am not sure if this feeling of incongruity is really a good response. At the heart of it is the notion that these artists should be doing more, that their rhetoric at the concert is just lip service since they will all go home to large houses and expensive cars. But it is important to recognize that if this critique is valid for the Live8 performers than it is valid for every one of us. Our incomes are far higher than those of poor Africans: shouldn't we be doing more too?

More importantly, it also assumes that there IS some way in which we could be "doing more." But that is not at all clear, and "just doing something," as Live8's Bob Geldof championed, probably does more harm than good. This Der Spiegel interview with Kenyan economist James Shikwati may provide some insight:
Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.

SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.

Shikwati: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there's a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program -- which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated. It's only natural that they willingly accept the plea for more help. And it's not uncommon that they demand a little more money than the respective African government originally requested. They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa ...

SPIEGEL: ... corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidized European and American farmers ...

Shikwati: ... and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but fatal cycle.


SPIEGEL: In the West, there are many compassionate citizens wanting to help Africa. Each year, they donate money and pack their old clothes into collection bags ...


Shikwati: Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livlihoods. They're in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.
In response to this interview my Dad (who was in the Peace Corps in Peru) writes in an e-mail,
It brings home, to me, the essence of the Peace Corps. In training we were taught to determine what the indigenous people needed, wanted, and not to impose anything on them. For example, if a village's priorities listed a statue to their hero at the top, then potable water and improved crops and sanitation were really secondary[.] Then [we would] help them accomplish the rest in due time without any funding other than, if available, indigenous (home-based) funding.
UPDATE:Also incongruous is this picture of Paul Wolfowitz holding an African child with the words "Africa: A Continent of Hope" in the foreground. Though he does look friendly.


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