Bards to the Powerful
21st June 2005
Far from challenging the G8’s role in Africa’s poverty, Geldof and Bono are legitimising its power.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 21st June 2005
“Hackers bombard financial networks”, the Financial Times reported on Thursday. Government departments and businesses “have been bombarded with a sophisticated electronic attack for several months.” It is being organised by an Asian criminal network, and is “aimed at stealing commercially and economically sensitive information.”(1) By Thursday afternoon, the story had mutated. “G8 hackers target banks and ministries”, said the headline in the Evening Standard. Their purpose was “to cripple the systems as a protest before the G8 summit.”(2) The Standard advanced no evidence to justify this metamorphosis.
This is just one instance of the reams of twaddle about the dark designs of the G8 protesters codded up by the corporate press.(3) That the same stories have been told about almost every impending public protest planned in the past 30 years and that they have invariably fallen apart under examination appears to present no impediment to their repetition. The real danger at the G8 summit is not that the protests will turn violent – the appetite for that pretty well disappeared in September 2001 – but that they will be far too polite.
Let me be more precise. The danger is that we will follow the agenda set by Bono and Bob Geldof.
The two musicians are genuinely committed to the cause of poverty reduction. They have helped secure aid and debt relief packages worth billions of dollars. They have helped to keep the issue of global poverty on the political agenda. They have mobilised people all over the world. These are astonishing achievements, and it would be stupid to disregard them.
The problem is that they have assumed the role of arbiters: of determining on our behalf whether the leaders of the G8 nations should be congratulated or condemned for the decisions they make. They are not qualified to do so, and I fear that they will sell us down the river.
Take their response to the debt relief package for the world’s poorest countries that the G7 finance ministers announced ten days ago. Anyone with a grasp of development politics who had read and understood the ministers’ statement could see that the conditions it contains – enforced liberalisation and privatisation – are as onerous as the debts it relieves.(4) But Bob Geldof praised it as “a victory for the millions of people in the campaigns around the world”,(5) and Bono pronounced it “a little piece of history.”(6) Like many of those – especially the African campaigners I know – who have been trying to highlight the harm done by such conditions, I feel betrayed by these statements. Bono and Geldof have made our job more difficult.
I understand the game they’re playing. They believe that praising the world’s most powerful men is more persuasive than criticising them. The problem is that in doing so they turn the political campaign developed by the global justice movement into a philanthropic one. They urge the G8 leaders to do more to help the poor. But they say nothing about ceasing to do harm.
It is true that Bono has criticised George Bush for failing to deliver the money he promised for AIDS victims in Africa. But he has never, as far as I can discover, said a word about the capture of that funding by “faith-based groups”: the code Bush uses for fundamentalist Christian missions which preach against the use of condoms.(7) Indeed, Bono seems to be comfortable in the company of fundamentalists. Jesse Helms, the racist, homophobic former senator who helped engineer the switch to faith-based government, is, according to his aides “very much a fan of Bono.”(8) This is testament to the singer’s remarkable powers of persuasion. But if people like Helms are friends, who are the enemies? Is exploitation something that just happens? Does it have no perpetrators?
This, of course, is how George Bush and Tony Blair would like us to see it. Blair speaks about Africa as if its problems are the result of some inscrutable force of nature, compounded only by the corruption of its dictators. He laments that “it is the only continent in the world over the past few decades that has moved backwards”.(9) But he has never acknowledged that – as even the World Bank’s studies show (10) – it has moved backwards partly because of the neoliberal policies it has been forced to follow by the powerful nations: policies that have just been extended by the debt relief package Bono and Geldof praised. Listen to these men – Bush, Blair and their two bards – and you could forget that the rich nations had played any role in Africa’s accumulation of debt, or accumulation of weapons, or loss of resources, or collapse in public services, or concentration of wealth and power by unaccountable leaders. Listen to them, and you would imagine that the G8 was conceived as a project to help the world’s poor.
I have yet to read a statement by either rock star which suggests a critique of power. They appear to believe that a consensus can be achieved between the powerful and the powerless, that they can assemble a great global chorus of rich and poor to sing from the same sheet. They do not seem to understand that, while the G8 maintains its grip on the instruments of global governance, a shared anthem of peace and love is about as meaningful as the old Coca-Cola ad.
The answer to the problem of power is to build political movements which deny the legitimacy of the powerful and seek to prise control from their hands: to do, in other words, what people are doing in Bolivia right now. But Bono and Geldof are doing the opposite: they are lending legitimacy to power. From the point of view of men like Bush and Blair, the deal is straightforward: we let these hairy people share a platform with us, we make a few cost-free gestures, and in return we receive their praise and capture their fans. The sanctity of our collaborators rubs off on us. If the trick works, the movements ranged against us will disperse, imagining that the world’s problems have been solved. We will be publicly rehabilitated, after our little adventure in Iraq and our indiscretions at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. The countries we wish to keep exploiting will see us as their friends rather than their enemies.
At what point do Bono and Geldof call time on the leaders of the G8? At what point does Bono stop pretending that George Bush is “passionate and sincere” about world poverty (11), and does Geldof stop claiming that he “has actually done more than any American president for Africa”?(12) At what point does Bono revise his estimate of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as “the John and Paul of the global development stage” or as leaders in the tradition of Keir Hardie and Clement Attlee?(13) How much damage do Bush and Blair have to do before the rock stars will acknowledge it?
Geldof and Bono’s campaign for philanthropy portrays the enemies of the poor as their saviours. The good these two remarkable men have done is in danger of being outweighed by the harm.
1. Maija Pesola, 16th June 2005. Hackers bombard financial networks. Financial Times.
2. Mark Prigg, 16th June 2005. ‘G8’ hackers target banks and ministries. Evening Standard
3. For more examples, see David Miller, 16th May 2005. How to Spin the G8. http://www.spinwatch.org/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=360
4. G8 Finance Ministers, 10-11 June 2005. Conclusions on Development. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/otherhmtsites/g7/news/conclusions_on_development_110605.cfm
5. Ashley Seager, Larry Elliott and Patrick Wintour, 13th June 2005. Brown urges rich countries to act now. The Guardian.
6. AFP, 11th June 2005. Bono Hails Group of Eight on Debt Relief.
7. Lindsey Hilsum, 13th June 2005. World view. New Statesman; Rachel Rinaldo, 24th May 2004. Condoms Take a Back Seat to Abstinence With U.S. AIDS Money. Inter Press Service; John Tarleton, 1st June 2003. On The Eve Of G8 Summit, Bush Delivers Emergency Aids Relief To Republican Allies.
8. Madeleine Bunting and Oliver Burkeman, 18th March 2002. Pro Bono. The Guardian.
9. Tony Blair, 27th May 2005. Statement to the Africa Commission in Rome.
10. eg William Easterly, February 2001. The Lost Decades: Developing Countries’ Stagnation in Spite of Policy Reform 1980-1998, World Bank.
11. Rory Carroll, 18th September 2003. Pop star’s relations with Bush turn sour. The Guardian.
12. Josh Tyrangiel, 19th June 2005. Three big shots, eight very big shows. Time magazine.
13. Bono, 29th September 2004. A chance for real change in Africa. Speech to the Labour Party Annual Conference, Brighton.
Spin, Lies and Corruption
14th June 2005
The G8’s debt reduction plan is little better than an extortion racket
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 14th June 2005
An aura of sanctity is descending upon the world’s most powerful men. On Saturday the finance ministers from seven of the G8 nations (Russia was not invited) promised to cancel the debts the poorest countries owe to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The hand that holds the sword has been stayed by angels: angels with guitars rather than harps.
Who, apart from the leader writers of the Daily Telegraph,(1) could deny that debt relief is a good thing? Never mind that much of this debt – money lent by the World Bank and IMF to corrupt dictators – should never have been pursued in the first place. Never mind that, in terms of looted resources, stolen labour and now the damage caused by climate change, the rich owe the poor far more than the poor owe the rich. Some of the poorest countries have been paying more for debt than for health or education. Whatever the origins of the problem, that is obscene.
You are waiting for me to say but, and I will not disappoint you. The but comes in paragraph 2 of the finance ministers’ statement. To qualify for debt relief, developing countries must “tackle corruption, boost private sector development” and eliminate “impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign.”(2)
These are called conditionalities. Conditionalities are the policies governments must follow before they receive aid and loans and debt relief. At first sight they look like a good idea. Corruption cripples poor nations, especially in Africa. The money which could have given everyone a reasonable standard of living has instead made a handful unbelievably rich. The powerful nations are justified in seeking to discourage it.
That’s the theory. In truth, corruption has seldom been a barrier to foreign aid and loans: look at the money we have given, directly and through the World Bank and IMF, to Mobutu, Suharto, Marcos, Moi and every other premier-league crook. Robert Mugabe, the west’s demon king, has deservedly been frozen out by the rich nations. But he has caused less suffering and is responsible for less corruption than Rwanda’s Paul Kagame or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, both of whom are repeatedly cited by the G8 countries as practitioners of “good governance”. Their armies, as the UN has documented, are largely responsible for the meltdown in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has so far claimed four million lives, and have walked off with billions of dollars’ worth of natural resources.(3) Yet the United Kingdom, which is hosting the G8 summit, remains their main bilateral funder. It has so far refused to make their withdrawal from the DRC a conditionality for foreign aid.
The difference, of course, is that Mugabe has not confined his attacks to black people; he has also dispossessed white farmers and confiscated foreign assets. Kagame, on the other hand, has eagerly supplied us with the materials we need for our mobile phones and computers: materials which his troops have stolen from the DRC. “Corrupt” is often used by our governments and newspapers to mean regimes that won’t do what they’re told.
Genuine corruption, on the other hand, is tolerated and even encouraged. Twenty-five countries have so far ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption, but none of them are members of the G8.(4) Why? Because our own corporations do very nicely out of it. In the UK companies can legally bribe the governments of Africa if they operate through our (profoundly corrupt) tax haven of Jersey.(5) Lord Falconer, the minister responsible for sorting this out, refuses to act. When you see the list of the island’s clients, many of which sit in the FTSE-100 index, you begin to understand.
The idea swallowed by most commentators – that the conditions our governments impose help to prevent corruption – is laughable. To qualify for World Bank funding, our model client Uganda was forced to privatise most of its state-owned companies, before it had any means of regulating their sale. A sell-off which should have raised $500m for the Ugandan exchequer instead raised $2m.(6) The rest was nicked by government officials. Unchastened, the World Bank insisted that – to qualify for the debt relief programme the G8 has now extended – the Ugandan government sell off its water supplies, agricultural services and commercial bank, again with minimal regulation.(7)
And here we meet the real problem with the G8’s conditionalities. They do not stop at pretending to prevent corruption, but intrude into every aspect of sovereign government. When the finance ministers say “good governance” and “eliminating impediments to private investment”, what they mean is commercialisation, privatisation and the liberalisation of trade and capital flows. And what this means is new opportunities for western money.
Let’s stick for a moment with Uganda. In the late 1980s, the IMF and World Bank forced it to impose “user fees” for basic healthcare and primary eduction. The purpose appears to have been to create new markets for private capital. School attendance, especially for girls, collapsed. So did health services, particularly for the rural poor. To stave off a possible revolution, Museveni reinstated free primary education in 1997 and free basic healthcare in 2001. Enrolment in primary school leapt from 2.5 million to 6 million, and the number of outpatients almost doubled. The World Bank and the IMF - which the G8 nations control – were furious. At the donors’ meeting in April 2001, the head of the Bank’s delegation made it clear that, as a result of the change in policy, he now saw the health ministry as a “bad investment”.(8)
There is an obvious conflict of interest in this relationship. The G8 governments claim they want to help poor countries to develop and compete successfully. But they have a powerful commercial incentive to ensure that they compete unsuccessfully, and that our companies can grab their public services and obtain their commodities at rock bottom prices. The conditionalities we impose on the poor nations keep them on a short leash.
That’s not the only conflict. The G8 finance ministers’ statement insists that the World Bank and IMF will monitor the indebted countries’ progress, and decide whether or not they are fit to be relieved of their burden.(9) The World Bank and IMF, of course, are the agencies which have the most to lose from this redemption. They have a vested interest in ensuring that debt relief takes place as slowly as possible.
Attaching conditions like these to aid is bad enough: it amounts to saying “we will give you a trickle of money if you give us the Crown Jewels.” Attaching them to debt relief is in a different moral league: “we will stop punching you in the face if you give us the Crown Jewels.” The G8’s plan for saving Africa is little better than an extortion racket.
Do you still believe our newly-sanctified leaders have earned their halos? If so, you have swallowed a truckload of nonsense. Yes, they should cancel the debt. But they should cancel it unconditionally.
1. Leading article, 13th June 2005. That’s enough debt relief.
2. G8 Finance Ministers, 10-11 June 2005. Conclusions on Development. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/otherhmtsites/g7/news/conclusions_on_development_110605.cfm
3. United Nations Security Council, October 2002. Final report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. UN, New York. See also: Amnesty International, 1st April 2003. Democratic Republic of the Congo: “Our brothers who help kill us” – economic exploitation and human rights abuses in the east. http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR620102003; Human Rights Watch, 4th December 2004. Democratic Republic of Congo – Rwanda Conflict.
http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2004/12/04/congo9767.htm; International Rescue Committee, December 2004. Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Results from a Nationwide Survey, Conducted April – July 2004.
http://www.theirc.org/pdf/DRC_MortalitySurvey2004_RB_8Dec04.pdf; Global Witness, June 2004. Same Old Story – Natural Resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo. www.globalwitness.org/reports/download.php/00141.pdf;
The All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region and Genocide Prevention, November 2002. Cursed by Riches: Who Benefits from Resource Exploitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? http://www.appggreatlakes.org/content/pdf/riches.pdf; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, US State Department. 31st March 2003. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2002. Rwanda. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2002/18221.htm
5. David Leigh, 2nd June 2005. Jersey breaks promise to outlaw bribes. The Guardian.
6. Warren Nyamugasira and Rick Rowden, April 2002. New Strageies; Old Loan Conditions. Uganda National NGO Forum, Kampala. http://www.internationalbudget.org/resources/library/UgandaPRSP.pdf
8. Report of the meeting by a health ministry official, cited in Warren Nyamugasira and Rick Rowden, ibid.
9. G8 Finance Ministers, 10-11 June 2005. G8 Proposals for HIPC debt cancellation. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/otherhmtsites/g7/news/conclusions_on_development_110605.cfm