My friend Brian at Black Star Journal has an excellent critical response to my post a few days back expressing frustration with today’s Live 8 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.