Saturday, June 25, 2005


As the world gets ever more interconnected, as our lives become intertwined with friends and family and strangers in electronic ways requiring ever more heightened degrees of sophistication and complexity, the world, in turn, will have to provide us with more complex solutions to our problems -- which is why the increasing hype around the upcoming LIVE 8 series of concerts devoted to ending 'extreme poverty' in Africa has me worried. They're a reprisal of the LIVE AID concerts that took place more than two decades ago, which followed up on America's 'We Are the World' and Canada's 'Tears Are Not Enough' pop songs that raised money for Ethiopia. (I distinctly remember watching the first Live-8 concert at the age of ten one summer morning, while waiting for the car to be packed for the start of our week-long vacation to Muskie Bay, Ontario. Strange, what the mind can remember.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for these concerts, designed to not only to raise money for poor African countries but also to intended to convince the G-8 countries to cancel the outstanding debts owed by these very same countries. Anything that brings Bryan Adams and Dan Ackroyd to Barrie, Ontario is a good thing; Barrie could use a little celebrity lovin', if you ask me. Anything that highlights charity, that gives to those in need, is, in and of itself, a good thing. An ennobling thing.

(Oh, and you sure as hell must sense the 'but' coming, right? Get ready. Arm yourselves.

But what worries me is the relatively simple-minded presentation of these concerts, which seems at odds with the relative complexity of the modern world that we live in. The myriad connections to the Internet available in multiple countries, the changing face of international business and commerce (skillfully depicted by Thomas Friedman in his new book The World Is Flat), the speed at which technology develops -- all are indicators of a world that is remarkable not only for its innovation, but also for its expectations. People expect more now; as a result, companies, corporations and innovators are expected to deliver.

What aren't the organizers of Live-8 delivering?

Nuance. Realism.

Here's what I would like Bob Geldof to say at the beginning of these concerts to his world-wide audience:

"Good afternoon, everybody! I hope you're ready for a fantastic show! I hope you've brought along plenty of bottled water, because you're going to need it under this blistering sun. Millions of people in Africa will never drink a clean glass of water in their entire lives, and this concert won't change that. Much of the money you donate to us will simply go into the pockets of the government workers of various indigent countries. You only have to look at the lack of reconstruction going on in countries affected by the tsunami to realize that there are a lot of venal, craven people in power who have no qualms whatsoever about keeping money specifically designated to help others. They prey on people's generosity. They take what we give. That's what we've been asking you to do -- give. That's what this is all about. You give money, and we save Africa. Fine. Charity is always good. It ennobles the human spirit.

"But what are we asking of Africans? It is not enough to give somebody something; you have to teach them how to make it themselves. It is not enough to just hand over money and think that you've achieved something grand and worthwhile; you have to teach people how to make money themselves. If you don't, you create a culture of dependency. You create a culture that takes advantage of your goodwill.

"I admit -- I fucked up. I should have been more specific when I started these series of concerts. I should have laid out, precisely, which countries the money you donate would go to, which government departments, and how we can ensure that this money will go to specific programs -- AIDS, education, law, construction. I should have indicated how we plan to monitor this money's progress to make sure that it reaches the people's themselves. I should have stated what capacity building programs we have instigated.

"Because it's not enough to think of Africa as this blob of humanity designed to receive our aid every twenty years or so. It's not enough to go to a concert in the park every twenty years or so and feel like you've actually contributed something. Contribution starts when enable people to enable for themselves.

"This concert will help do that. Thank you and enjoy the show."

I write these words not as someone who begrudges charity, but as someone who has worked in a UN organization and seen the ways that money is stolen, diluted and put aside by the very governments who are supposed to be doing something with it. I write these as someone who has spent two years living in a country that was voted as the tenth-worst country to live in for women and children. I write these as someone who witnesses a generation of children who associate foreigners as "someone who gives me money."

This is not blame, but realism. A country like Cambodia did not ask for genocide, or corruption, but here it is, overt and enduring, and it must be dealt with. Many countries in Africa are going through the same thing.

For me, the important things are:

a) Ensuring that whatever aid money is given, whenever it's given, this week and next year and the year after, as often as possible, ends up directly with the people who need it. It is inevitable, absolutely certain, that much of the money will be stolen by the respective governments. The only way to combat this is to create series of 'watchmen' who will monitor what money is given to whom, and what is done with it. I don't know if it is feasible -- but it is necessary.

b) Ensuring that money is not just given to people, but used to create projects designed to train people, allow them to acquire skills, continue their education. That old cliche maxim is true: "Give a man to fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for a life." Many countries, Cambodia included, are literally living off the aid industry -- for jobs, for support, for money. The whole point of aid groups is to help people first, and then enable them to help themselves. This takes years, and the progress is slow, and the evaluation is difficult, but it is absolutely essential. Money from donations raised over the coming years should go into specific programs in specific areas designed for specific problems in specific countries -- education, engineering, computer repair, medicine, you name it. Governments can be very, very, very corrupt; unless there are safeguards in place, checking-mechanisms in place, the corruption will continue, whether or not their debts are cancelled.

I know it's just a concert designed for a good cause. I know it's a way to mobilize the world.

But for most people, that's what it will be -- a series of cool concerts, a pleasant diversion on a Saturday afternoon. They will listen to the bands and cheer on Africans and drink some water and go on home and try to catch the end of Saturday Night Live, even if it is a repeat.

The countries, though, are real. The people are real. Their misfortune is extreme. Their prospects are dim. These are difficult, complex problems that require real, lasting, intricate solutions. To not acknowledge some dismaying realities, to not propose concrete, viable plans that are then laid bare for the public to criticize and enhance, not only belittles our own collective intelligence but is also, in this interconnected world, asking for too little from us. People (myself included) who spend hours figuring out websites, downloading music onto i-pods and composing blogs should be able to spare a few moments to listen to different theories regarding African aid -- what we should be doing, with whom, why, and what the next step is. Anything less is an insult to us and an affront to all those less fortunate countries that require a little bit of help to eventually get to a state where they, too, are at a level to set up aid concerts of their own, where they, too, can all afford to buy a bottle of mineral water, parasite-free, and chill out for a few hours, under the sun, listening to music.

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