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Africa’s a continent. Not a crisis.

My friend Brian at Black Star Journal has an excellent critical response to my post a few days back expressing frustration with today’s concerts. Conceding me a few points – the paucity of Africans on the festival bill, the trivial ways in which people are being asked to show “commitment” to Africa – he (rightly) challenges me on my (snarky, mean) comments about celebrity involvement in the concert series.

Brian and I have some common background as bloggers – like me, he’s lived and worked in West Africa (as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea-Conakry) and, like me, the experience has turned him into an Afrophile and advocate for development issues. I read, enjoy and respect his blog and am grateful that he’s forcing me to wrestle with these questions rather than just slagging Live 8 and moving on.

And I couldn’t agree more when Brian points out:

The main reason I care about third world development issues is because I lived in Africa. My concern was only vague and theoretical before then. Most people don’t have the good fortune to live abroad. And you aren’t going to learn anything much about development issues by reading the mainstream US media.

So does this mean that the only people who can care about development issues are people who’ve lived in lesser developed countries? In fact, this goes against everything I believe. Having lived in Africa, I WANT Americans to care about the place, even those who haven’t been there.

Given how hard it is to hear about African issues through mainstream media, shouldn’t I be grateful that Africa is getting attention, even if that attention is mostly to celebrities and the music, and less to the issues? Brian draws an analogy to the late Princess Diana’s involvement in the campaign to ban landmines:

I remember back when Princess Diana got involved in the landmine question. I wondered how those ordinary activists felt. They worked on the issue for years to little effect but then this fancy royal flies in and suddenly it’s the cause célèbre du jour.

But on the other hand, at the end of the day, the Ottawa treaty banning landmines was signed. Most countries (not including the US) do not use landmines anymore. Is it really important who gets credit? As an activist, is it about you or the cause? Do you think any anti-landmine activist would say, “I think we should revoke the Ottawa treaty because it wouldn’t have passed without star power”? I hope not. If so, they are not real activists.

He goes on to share a nuanced and more optimistic view of Live 8 than the one I’ve expressed.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that many people won’t learn much about important issues of international development unless a princess or a rock star picks up the mantle. But it’s reality. And given all the serious problems facing both the world and individual countries, can you really blame people for not focusing on 10,000 issues at once?

Most people aren’t going to the Live 8 concerts because of their concern for development issues. HOWEVER, once there, they will be a captive audience. Once there, they might learn a thing or two about issues they hadn’t considered before… It’s easy to say, “I know so much about development issues and Live 8 can barely scratch the surface.” And it’s may be true. But f you want to get people interested in development issues, you have to start somewhere.

Let me start my response by conceding that I agree with Brian more than I disagree. I’m perpetually frustrated at how difficult it is to hear about development issues in mainstream media. I’m grateful to see African development issues as a major priority at the G8 talks, and I acknowledge that the involvement of celebrities has helped make these issues more prominent, though I don’t think they’re responsible for getting Blair to “put Africa on the agenda”.

On the Princess Di analogy – I’m tempted to make a distinction between celebrities who clearly care deeply about causes and throw themselves into campaigning – Geldof, Bono, Peter Gabriel and Angelina Jolie all come to mind – and those who come along for the ride at an event like this one. But I’m not foolish enough to take Brian’s bait and argue that well-intentioned but incompletely-informed supporters should be turned away from good causes. And I acknowledge the arrogance Brian’s attributes to me with the “I know so much about development issues and Live 8 can barely scratch the surface” statement – not a quote from me, but too close to the truth for me to brush it off.

All that said, I’m having trouble sharing Brian’s view that the attention generated by Live 8 is neccesarily a good thing. Yes, millions of people are paying attention to “Africa” today… but I’m having some trouble recognizing the “Africa” they’re talking about.

In several of the interviews I watched on CNN and MTV, concert performers and fans referenced “the issue of Africa”, “the African cause”, or “the problem of Africa”.

Africa’s not an issue. It’s not a cause or a problem. It’s a continent – a complicated, confusing, beautiful continent, with wealth and poverty, peace and strife, success and tragedy. When Africa becomes a cause, we tend to see only one side of the continent – a helpless, dependent, starving side that “needs our help”.

To actually accomplish the goal of Live 8 – the elimination of poverty in Africa – Americans and Europeans have to get a great deal smarter about this other Africa. This Africa needs investment and trade, rather than just aid and debt forgiveness This Africa is open for business. This Africa is as important and as real as the Africa that needs help.

Aid dollars don’t eliminate poverty – integration into a global economy does. (South Korea and Ghana had approximately the same per capita income when Ghana gained independence in 1957. South Korea’s income per capita has increased roughly fifteen times in constant dollar terms, while Ghana’s has fallen slightly. You may notice that we buy a great deal more from South Korea than we do from Ghana.) If the goal of Live 8 were to help people see the African continent as a place they want to visit, a place they want to open businesses in, a place they want to engage with, as opposed to a place they want to save, I’d be more likely to share Brian’s hopes.

But that would be a very different concert. It would be one that celebrated the cultural richness of the continent by putting African artists on stage, rather than inviting them – after Geldof was shamed by Peter Gabriel – to perform at a parallel event a hundred miles away from the main action. It would be one that put African leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators on stage, rather than using a silent young Ethiopian woman as a stage prop for Madonna and Geldof. It would be one that was more focused on changing the global image of Africa than on somehow changing the minds of the eight guys sitting around a table in Scotland.

It’s possible that I’m wrong, and that the concert is changing the mind of the performers, the fans, and the G8. Perhaps traffic will mushroom at AllAfrica.com as thousands of new readers start following news from around the continent. Maybe African hiphop stars will start selling records in the US as Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg start touring with Senegalese and Tanzanian rappers. Perhaps Bush will agree to stop subsidizing sugar and cotton production, Chirac will agree that EU dairy subsidies are unreasonable and Putin will crack down on sales of small arms to conflict-ridden nations. (By the way, if Bush and EU leaders do cut agricultural subsidies, allow me to predict a revival of the 1980’s “Farm Aid” concerts across the US and Europe…)

Maybe my flight to Johannesburg next week will be packed with tourists, businessmen and music fans all travelling to Gabarone, Windhoek and Maputo. I promise to let you know. I’ll also let you know if we see a measurable rise in the mention of African nations in mainstream news coverage or in weblogs.

But I’m not betting on it. Because what I’ve seen of Live 8 so far treats Africa as a crisis, not an opportunity, and perpetuates the sense that Africa’s another planet, not just another place.

46 thoughts on “Africa’s a continent. Not a crisis.”

  1. Spot on Ethan. I tried to watch the concert on MTV, but couldn’t get past “lets snap every three-seconds” to “raise awareness” (as the audience seem more enthralled with the celebrities who were showing them “how it’s done”) and other just ridiculous gimmicks. And most of the concert-goers being interviewed could barely articulate why they were there or why they thought this was an important event. (“I’m here for the great performers, and oh..yeah, the cause…because you know, like, we should all be concerned about Africa…like all the suffering and all.”) I’d been willing to give the event the benefit of the doubt, but the snippets I caught had me gagging.

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  3. i do not appreciate the logo of this live 8 concert. depicting africa as a guitar is rediculous and not to mention that africa is not the only continent with poverty. i do not like the focus on certain countries while there are other very important ones as well that we should be ‘aware’ of and focus on, like china and russia, and so on. i do not appreciate the downplaying of other countries, and the focus on africa. i am not saying that this is not a big problem there, but others should not be misled.
    ps i agree that many people are going to these concerts for the celebrities and could care less about aids, which is unfortunate, but hey theres nothing we can do about that.
    also… did we all hear that madonna cursing? how classy. im so done with that fake. yuck.

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  6. I’m happy to see articles such as this – they are few and far between in the mainstream press. i’m guessing that’s because issues such as you’ve brought up require too much thought and time in these times of blurbs and snippets.

    Another issue which i feel must be raised – poverty exists at the hands of unscrupulous leaders who pillage all around them in order to make their own clan wealthy. Amongst some groups, this is just considered proper behavior. it’s how it’s done. it’s a cultural standard – you protect your own, and your own only.

    Are activists willing to understand that some governments might have to fall by force in order to eradicate poverty? you can’t just throw money into a country and hope it goes to the right place.

  7. It makes me feel better knowing I asked the right questions of myself today in response to this Live8 event (blogged it). Your blog is excellent and I hope it is widely read.

    From what I read doing my own research today, you are exactly right about what Africa needs help with. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the G8 summit and if they give any weight to Live8 at all.

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  9. Ok you are a breath of fresh air. I am fighting a one woman struggle right now to inform people that we actually do have elevators, roads, cars, etc and most importantly that Africa is not a village but has 53 countries…that is right 53 and I come from Zmbabwe, a beutiful rch country bigger than the UK……but ohhh what can I say everyone is playing deaf. Yes we have our problems but so does the US!

  10. As I’ve been reading the posts I have learned alot of people have been thinking some of the same thoughts I’ve had for years. Africa is a continent of various countries that the richer nations of the world have really ignored for years. Not many people in the USA focus on Africa much more than to say “Oh look at all those poor starving children…” or something of the like. No one (except a few meger polititians and activists) actually realizes that all of the countries of Africa suffer from a lack of a real economy. The US government allows several of it’s manufacturers to send their factories to other countries (might I say to the detriment of it’s own citizens), but I have yet to see any of that so called economic help go into any countries in Africa. I have seen interviews from politicians, celebraties, and activits where they have asked others in the US government to get involved with the nations in Africa more, but many turn around and say “What does these African nations have to offer us?” So what I am trying to get at here is that we can do all of the Live Aid/Live 8 concerts we want, but until someone can get these rather self-centered, pompous politicians and corporate business owners to get off their bums and really care about doing something for someone else, then we are all pretty screwed because all they care about now is lining their pockets and getting the next soundbite to get re-elected.

    As for getting rid of some of the rotten African governments out by force… the USA already is in up past it’s bum in Afganistan and Iraq over the same stuff and it’s hard to tell whether people like us or hate us for it. I’m not sure which way to go with that one anymore.

  11. There is nothing more loathsome than people complaining about people trying to make a difference. Since when is everything perfect?

  12. For me the final straw was seeing Annie Lennox on the BBC’s Live8 blog last night describing Africa as “a can of worms,” adding “Thank God for Bono, thank God for Bob.”

    Not only is Africa not a crisis, it isn’t a can of worms! Is this really the kind of advocate we need? I understand the exasperation of pb; it may well look churlish to complain. But those of us who were around during Live Aid and felt uneasy about the consequences of that under-informed outpouring of “concern” by millions of people have good reason for being sceptical; we’re worse off now than we were then. Why? Precisely because no-one wanted to engage with the complexity then either. If those millions of people had persuaded their leaders to change the terms of trade that, alongside domestic failings, have crippled our economies, there would be something to cheer about. We don’t need the pity and the advocacy of these musicians; if the argument is that the Live 8 gigs will concentrate the minds of the leaders at Gleneagles, that remains to be seen. Let’s cheer afterwards if it works. It didn’t last time. If the G8’s politicians really take some serious action to address the imbalances built into global trade relationships THAT would be worth having. It’s good to note that there’s been positive news on debt. I just don’t think Live 8 was ever going to make a difference to their decisions; and meanwhile, Africa’s once again having its reputation entrenched by the likes of Lennox as a place where nothing good ever happens, where the people must depend on the kindness of St Bob. Whether we like it or not, it’s THAT view that’s getting the mass traction out there – again.

  13. Sorry you’ve now concluded that I’m “loathsome”, Ingrid. I was trying to offer my thoughts that it’s not always enough to just have the right intentions. I guess all the folks who have a critical view of Live 8 – despite working hard in a variety of ways to benefit the continent – will either have to shut up or suffer your contempt. Personally, I’ll choose the contempt.

  14. “There is nothing more loathsome than people complaining about people trying to make a difference. Since when is everything perfect?”

    I concur. The world has become so cynical that when the attention grabbers (the superstar artists) actually take up a cause, some people actually have the heart to nitpick and downplay the potential aftereffects! How sour must a person be to bring up negative aspects of a positive event? That’s like someone critising a wedding because they didnt like the ceremony. Be happy that something good happened. Live 8 had over 1 million spectators and over 2 billion viewers – let the numbers speak for themselves! If 1/5 of the people who viewed those concerts came out with a greater awareness of the poverty situation in certain parts of Africa, I would say that it was a success. IT’S A START OF A BETTER DAY!

    Come on, lend some support, get over yourself and ease up on your critical analysis of how some of the audience may not have “gotten it” and showed up only for the artists. Who knows how many future activists were created that day based on seeing and hearing the information that was presented. Who knows how many future world leaders will be able to say that attending the Live 8 concert was what snapped them into becoming more aware of the world around them.

    And it’s not about shutting anyone up. It’s about not diminishing the possible effect of Live 8 by offering support instead of criticism. We shouldnt even be having this conversation, for at least someone is attempting to do something. These cynics are selfishly arguing the case that events like this are not going to help. Like I said before, IT’S A START!

  15. @ poverty struck: this conversation is necessary and this critique is hardly loathsome, because if the strategies of Live 8 fail to have an impact 10-20 years from now everybody will be pointing fingers at Africa as a place that is beyond rescue (“these Africans tsk..tsk) and not at the misdirected energies and focus of the activists behind Live 8.

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  17. Jawahar Mundlapati

    I think the root cause of poverty in Africa is *lack of compassion* for fellow
    human beings among African countries.

  18. Ethan you are spot on. I do not agree with the line of thought taken by Brian and others which in my mind boils down to “any publicity is better than none” I would like to just add a couple of observations and points.

    I watched the AFrican artists at Eden project on and off on the internet and first of all there were very few people in attendance and secondly the issues that Live8 claims to want to highlight were hardly mentioned even there. I also listened to to pre concert interview from London with fans – all said that their main reason for going was to “listen to the music”.

    I am of the belief that Geldof et al have actually made the problem worse. Why? Because the world at large (including those attending the Live8 concerts)) seems to think that 18 countries have suddenly had their debt cancelled and that is that. They have no understanding of the reality of the debt cancellation (I will try to post something later today on BL to outline the realities)such as the conditionalities attached to the debt cancellation, the conditionalities attached to further aid, and the failure of G8 to make any serious changes on the trade issue that will benefit Africa. Bono and Geldof have themselves praised the debt cancellation calling it a great victory. This is utter nonsense and shows their complete ignorance.

    *Poverty Struct -” Be happy that something good happened. Live 8 had over 1 million spectators and over 2 billion viewers – let the numbers speak for themselves! If 1/5 of the people who viewed those concerts came out with a greater awareness of the poverty situation in certain parts of Africa, I would say that it was a success. IT’S A START OF A BETTER DAY! ”

    1 million spectators and 2 billion viewers watched a pop concert – The big question is it the content of their awareness? Africa as a poor helpless country where nothing grows and no rivers flow – that is how the concert portrays Africa. You are in an arrogant dreamland my friend!

  19. Brilliant post Ethan and an excellent discussion – this must be part of what the whole MPH project is about isn’t it? Getting people to start talking and digging into the complexity of the issues?

    I honestly think that those criticising the Live8 concerts might be missing the point in a number of areas. Firstly, I love music from all over the world but I’d be hard-pressed to put together a “dream line-up” of African artists who would attract 200,000 people to Hyde Park let alone secure a day of BBC coverage (and that includes the BBC staying with the coverage after the concert ran a couple of hours late!). Without that exposure how can you start informing people?

    Next, you cannot have a dialogue with any group of people unless you engage them first – if only 10% of the global audience go away and start looking at information about Africa, particularly eloquent and erudite analysis such as on this blog, then things might change. Without the introduction offered by a few pop concerts it’s difficult to see how that engagement might be fostered. In a similar vein – the “Clicks” campaign is a simple and easily digested message for the digital age but it’s only a start – far better to get people thinking about that image and then start the discussion than to try and explain the inequities of the protectionist trade policies in Europe and the US without putting them in context.

    Rather than suggesting that the content of 2 billion viewers’ awareness is an inaccurate portrayal of Africa it may be better to question whether an inaccurate portrayal is better than complete ignorance and indifference? If children across Europe are going to school today and asking teachers about Africa that has to be better than doing nothing. If politicians across the world start looking at, and considering the number of people who have signed the Live8list or demonstrated in Edinburgh that has to be better than simply ignoring the issues that has to be a start. If some people are now open to trying to understand that simply cancelling the debt is not the answer there may be coherent action.

    Without Live8 how would any of this dialogue be possible? Live Aid was about feeding people, a short term response. Live8 is about changing the culture of how the developed world trades with the rest of the world – that’s a far bigger ambition and it won’t be done in a day or a week or month or even a year but it’s a start and the alternative is unthinkable isn’t it?

  20. “1 million spectators and 2 billion viewers watched a pop concert – The big question is it the content of their awareness? Africa as a poor helpless country where nothing grows and no rivers flow – that is how the concert portrays Africa. You are in an arrogant dreamland my friend! -Owukori”

    It’s as easy as adding up the numbers. In the back of their minds, each of the G8 leaders knows that there is strength in numbers. They would be fools to disregard the very people who helped to vote them into power. The Live 8 concert may have attracted persons to it by using music, but does it really matter how they came to be aware of the cause, if only slightly aware?

    As for being in a “dreamland”, I would rather dream of Africa that is successful in every country due the efforts of a few artists than to sit back and seemingly nitpick at their attempts like some of you are. What have any of you “critics” done that has brought together even one-fourth of the people involved in Live 8? You claim that it can be done better – Then do it!

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  22. You know, i saw someone post about greedy businessmen and corporations not wanting to help someone else.

    oh please. that is such a trite and ignorant path.

    corporations and businessmen are out to make money, and in doing so, they must generally employ people (and upgrade local infrastuctures, and educate people – even if just for the bare minimum to be employed). if they saw advantage in going into african countries to do so, you can bet they would. i would say that it’s fairly safe to assume that laws and regulations in places where there is no real economy are lacking in the type of structure and direction required for businesses to sprout up, or for outside businesses to come in.

    think about it – if there is no real economy, isn’t that on the backs of the people who run countries in africa, and not on anyone else’s backs? As corrupt as some businesses have been, it’s under the umbrella and protection of the local governments.

    also, i do not think that corporate entities have any moral imperative to be at all helpful – it’s simply not their job. they have an imperative to be efficient at production. Local laws are used to confine or guide people and businesses into aiding the local economy – be it through taxes, or other conditional operating rules – as it should be.

  23. Ethan,

    Illegitumus Non-carborundum!! I completely concur with your critique (which takes much more thought and moral courage than what has been displayed by some posters above).

    And you’re also right about the negative stereotype this creates of “the African problem”. The point Brian made about this being a start, is belied by the fact that this brings the wrong mindset to the issues. If we were trying to do something about domestic violence, holding a benefit concert to raise awareness about alcoholism would skew the issue in the wrong direction.

    I’m really tired of the “well, you have to start somewhere” attitude. Most people are really not that stupid. Lazy yes, but not stupid. Many americans want to believe that there is no problem that cannot simply be solved by throwing money at it. Three cheeseburgers and one dollar in the “End Poverty” collection jar.

    Also, I have to say that the whole Cornwall sideshow was a travesty. Geldof should be stripped of his knighthood for that. The disingenuous comments about not wanting to lose audience because some “unknown” african artist was onstage is utter nonsene. Talk about a lost opportunity to showcase not only established african artists, but up and coming artists as well.

    Thanks for making us all push past the surface and think about the more difficult issues.

  24. EZ’s blog is full of great articles and information and feeling and stuff. This is one of the best I’ve read so far, and my compliments to you Ethan and to Brian of Black Star Journal as well.

    I would agree with Nogbad’s analysis myself; think positive and make all of this attention on Africa payoff for Africans and for the rest of us. People around the world are smarter than (many of) you think and they are well informed too, especially today in the Age of the Internet and digital communications.

    Have a great trip to Zud Afrika!

  25. ” Talk about a lost opportunity to showcase not only established african artists, but up and coming artists as well.”

    But Kevin – that of itself loses sight of what the concerts were about doesn’t it? It wasn’t about showcasing up and coming talent or telling the world that Africa has some great musical talent. It was about drawing attention to what is happening in parts of Africa. And many people in the west rather than just the US believe that money is the universal answer – again that was the point being made by Live8, had it been otherwise we’d have been invited to “give our f**king money” as we famously were twenty years ago.

    Live8 has already achieved a good deal more than had happened in the past. People all over the world are discussing (and arguing) about what is happening, people are being politicised, and that is how change comes about. Whether you and I or anyone else agrees with what should happen is less important – what most of the thinking world agrees on is that something should happen and that’s the point of all the activities. It would be woeful if this momentum was lost, if people sank back into the torpor of worrying about the next promotion at McDonald’s or whether to buy Ford or Chevvy or many of the other little things that seem so important.

    It’s actually very easy to be cynical, it’s a good deal easier (and lazier) to stand on the sidelines and scoff rather than to get involved and be prepared to try (and fail if necessary). Kennedy famously quoted Shaw in saying “Some people look at things and ask why. Other people look at things and say why not?” Being tired of the “well it’s a start” attitude is disingenuous – what would you propose? Continued ignorance? Simply not doing anything? Not showing the world that part of our planet is in pain? Many of us would be a good deal more comfortable if we didn’t see images of war or famine from around the world – it’s easier to ignore it all isn’t it? The whole point of Live8 is that we cannot ignore it any longer and for many people that’s the important start – we have an opportunity to define a generation, the Live8/MPH generation might actually get off its collective ar*e and do something. What’s needed now is a coherent understanding of what action is needed and that’s why we should listen to voices like Ethan’s and others. Was aparthied defeated because we boycotted South African goods? Who knows? But without that action our support of aparthied was implicit. I’d love to see a concert of African music but it wouldn’t be the appropriate tool to attract a worldwide audience would it? Geldof et all have made the world listen – what we need now is to try and get all those listeners to understand.

  26. Just wanted to offer a huge “thank you” for everyone who’s taken the time to comment on this thread, especially those of you with critiques of my arguments. I’ll happily concede that the conversations taking place here and around the blogosphere about Live 8 are an unambiguously positive outcome of the concert.

  27. Seriously, who cares whether your favorite African artist gets showcased or not?

    I agree 100% with Brian’s critique of your original post and this response fills me with even more irritation than your original post.

  28. “But that would be a very different concert.”

    Yes it would, it would be a very very small concert, with no global coverage. And I am 100% sure you or me wouldn’t have even known the concert occured, let alone be talking about it.

    Big bands bring big media coverage which brings big public attention which brings results. Unknown African bands… don’t.

  29. Chris – you’re certainly right – a concert of artists known well by fans of African music and not by pop fans doesn’t get much coverage or attention – most reports about the “Africa Calling” concert suggest there were about 4,000 attendees rather than the hundreds of thousands in Hyde Park. My hope would have been for a concert that showcased African performers alongside the big draw performers on the main stage.

  30. “Geldof et all have made the world listen – what we need now is to try and get all those listeners to understand.”

    To get back to Ethan’s original point (I think), Geldof et al have in fact made the world listen to the WRONG message. Africa is not a crisis, it is not a “can of worms” — it is a disservice to all concerned to reduce “Africa” to a set of problems.

    Indeed, if we are to get all those listeners to understand, what is it that they are to understand? If wanting people to look beyond negative stereotypes is cynical, then color me cynical. However, it is a positive approach, not a cynical one, to push past the distorted view of Africa as a continent of crisis.

  31. Hello !
    a great article! i want just to give you a feedback about my feeling to what i see in the media!
    i’m from morocco and i was in many european countries, and recently i had the choice to go to genève or dakar and i’ve choosen dakar in order to see exactly how is this city and how the citisens lives there , because as an african , i know exactly which image give the media to us and to the european about africa !
    when i was in norway, i was really choked when i’ve seeing a documentry in the norwagian tv about casablanca and it seems like a horrible place (of course there is horrible places in casablanca like in the other cities in the world)but the documentary was absolutely illogic and very far from the reality!
    i mean

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