Bob Geldof: Let them know it's Christmas time. Again and again and again

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The Independent Online

It was November, 1984. The spectre of famine stalked Africa. Images of starving Ethiopians were in our living rooms, forcing us to watch their terror and suffering. Governments had turned their backs but millions of ordinary people had seen enough. The pop world expressed its anger and desire for change in a song. "Do They Know it's Christmas?" went to No 1 and stayed there for five weeks.

It was November, 1984. The spectre of famine stalked Africa. Images of starving Ethiopians were in our living rooms, forcing us to watch their terror and suffering. Governments had turned their backs but millions of ordinary people had seen enough. The pop world expressed its anger and desire for change in a song. "Do They Know it's Christmas?" went to No 1 and stayed there for five weeks.

"Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time" they sang – and, cornily enough, people did. Within a year, the Live Aid concert became not only the biggest fundraising event in history but a highly effective political lobby for change.

Two decades on, Africa's plight is nowhere near as bad as it was. It is immeasurably worse. We are standing on the brink of what may prove to be the greatest development disaster of modern times. True to form, governments have reacted with all the strategic competence of rabbits caught in headlights.

I am painfully aware of the boredom induced in people by me banging the same old drum. But as we prepare for the indulgences of Christmas, more than 30 million Africans face the prospect of starvation. The world's poorest region has become steadily poorer. Average incomes and nutritional standards are lower than in the mid-1980s. Some 300 million people are living in extreme poverty.

Unlike famine, this relentless poverty doesn't make it on to our television screens. But it is one that claims the lives of 8,000 children each day from poverty-related disease. And in our knowledge-based global economy, fewer than half of Africa's children make it through primary school – guaranteeing the transmission of poverty to the next generation.

So what has gone wrong? Seventeen years after Live Aid, why are we are looking at another African disaster in the making? And why has so little been done to prevent it? Some of the answers to these questions can be traced to new problems. Back in 1984, none of us could have predicted the scale of the HIV/Aids crisis.

Yet today, Africa accounts for three-quarters of all deaths associated with the disease, with 25 million people currently infected. Beyond the immediate suffering, HIV/Aids is placing strain on health and education systems, and undermines the ability to earn a living.

Climate change also plays a part. In Ethiopia, the shortening of rainy seasons and lengthening of dry spells has increased vulnerability to hunger.

African governments themselves have much to answer for. They are, in general, fairly hopeless, but they also do not have the safety net of relative prosperity that gives our own weak governments room to manoeuvre. War, corruption and misgovernment continues to destroy countries and their people. In southern Africa, to take the most blatant example, the murderously lunatic government of Zimbabwe has helped engineer famine conditions across the region.

I will not defend the indefensible in Africa but I'm increasingly angered the way in which our governments use Africa's governance problems as a smokescreen for obscuring their own failures. The insouciance or indifference of Western political leaders is sleepwalking us to a terrible conclusion. Our policies – which contribute to mass deaths – are a monstrous and indescribably cruel crime of intent. Because we know it's happening, and yet we bluster, obfuscate and delay. And, before our very eyes, humanity diminishes and dies in its millions. It makes me sick.

I know how boring it is for people to see "Geldof crapping on again" and frankly it's as boring for me, but I'm stuck with it. And despite it being a cliché, I become viciously angry at this awful thing we do. All of us.

For years I have worked with Bono and Jubilee 2000 to release Africa from the millstone of debt. Some advances have been made. Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, some 26 countries are now getting debt relief. And in countries such as Tanzania and Uganda the savings are helping finance education and health spending.

But half of the countries that have received debt relief are still paying more than 15 per cent of government revenue to creditors. Zambia pays 30 per cent more debt than it spends on health or basic education. Sub-Saharan Africa is spending $40m a day on debt – money it literally does not have. And yet according to the World Bank and the IMF Africa's debt is now "sustainable". Nothing more needs to be done.

But what ethical or economic rationale is there for tolerating a situation in which debt payments are keeping children out of school, restricting spending on HIV/Aids and undermining prospects for economic recovery? The entire issue of debt is economic sophist bollocks. We do not need the money. It is utterly meaningless to the world economy. When an entire continent populated by the poorest, hungriest, most wretched and most vulnerable people on the planet are chained to lives of debt slavery, where are our much-vaunted values of reason, liberty and justice?

No rationale from the tiresome ideologues of financial institutions can justify that. There must be a total cancellation of debt. The terrible and jarring truth is that not one single child in the north would be affected if the whole debt were to be cancelled now.

The debt crisis has been exacerbated by declining commodity prices. Prices received by African coffee farmers have fallen by half in the past three years to a 30-year low. This has devastated many communities in Ethiopia, which – along with failed land policies and the weather – has helped create the conditions for mass hunger. Yet commodity prices, unlike the investment rights and the intellectual property rights of transnational companies, do not even figure on the agenda of the new round of talks at the World Trade Organisation.

Some aspects of our trade policy simply defy credibility. Africans are told by the World Bank and Western governments that they should be exporting more agricultural products. Then they get hammered by our trade barriers and agricultural subsidies, currently running at $300bn a year.

Take the 10 million West African households whose livelihoods depend on the cultivation and export of cotton. In 2001, the United States, the world's largest cotton exporter, spent $4bn subsidising its 25,000 cotton farmers. This is more than the total national income of countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali, whose farmers have to compete against American farmers. These subsidies have lowered world prices by about one-quarter, costing West Africa some $200m in lost foreign exchange and depriving households of income needed for food, education and health spending.

President Bush likes to lecture African leaders about the benefits of free trade and level playing fields in agriculture. Presumably this is the level playfield that runs all the way downhill from the Texas cotton belt to Burkina Faso. And precisely what free trade principle is it that pitches some of the world's poorest farmers into competition with the world's richest treasuries?

Europe is as bad. The EU exports wheat at two-thirds of what it actually costs to produce and sugar at a mere quarter of the cost of production. At a time when one fifth of the world's population lives on $1 a day, the average EU cow gets $2.20 in a daily handout.

The Common Agricultural Policy costs you and me $40bn per annum – and forces farmers in local markets in Africa to compete against cereals, dairy products and sugar surpluses dumped courtesy of EU taxpayers. That's us – and we share the responsibility. Don't like it? Then join with the development agencies trying to force Europe and the US to accept an international ban on agricultural export subsidies.

Like trade, our record on aid is lamentable. The first thing to state categorically is that aid does work. It is not wasted. And if issues like debt and trade were sorted then the benefits of aid would be exponential.

Yet aid transfers have fallen to record low levels.

Our governments have committed us to achieve goals in the worldwide eradication of poverty by 2015. It means relatively little. Because when 2015 rolls round our leaders will shrug and say: "Oh well, tant pis. Let's have new more realistic targets this time". To reach the agreements will require the West spending $100bn a year; current spending is just half that.

Is any one trying to do anything about this? Well yes, to his great credit Gordon Brown uniquely keeps plugging away. The Chancellor has attempted to swing his counterparts behind a clever scheme to double spending by donors. If he succeeds it will be a great triumph and a source of justifiable pride for this country. We weren't wrong back in 1984. It wasn't a great song but that was never the point. We wanted everyone to protest against the sheer injustice. And they did. What it showed is governments can be swayed – and policies changed – by strong arguments voiced by strong public movements. The individual is not powerless in the face of monstrous human tragedy.

It is Christmas – a time when we notice the cold beggar more acutely, and are more aware of friends who are ill, lonely or cold. We offer gestures of love and friendship, even if it's just a pint at the pub, or a photocopied arse at the office party.

We are better at Christmas. We try. So take that and enlarge it. Expand it, and your imagination, to the millions elsewhere. Because you really are capable of changing this crappy mean little world that does not really tell the truth about us as human beings.

We really should feed them. We really should let them know it's Christmas.

Again. And again. And again.