Bob Geldof: 'Things have changed. It feels very positive'

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The Independent Online

Two decades on, the magic still works. Bob Geldof swept into Ethiopia this week on a whirlwind five-day tour of the country where aid agencies fear 14 million people are at risk of starvation. He had timed it to end tomorrow, the day that world leaders meet at the G8 in the French town of Evian, and from the moment he arrived it was clear that - nearly 20 years after Band Aid - he still could not be ignored.

He met representatives of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the ambassadors of 12 countries and other dignitaries. "We had," he observed drily yesterday, "full and frank discussions, to say the least." Geldof has never been overawed by the powerful, but when he first went to Africa in the 1980s he was overwhelmed by the sheer hullabaloo. "They're treating me as if I was Prince f***ing Charles," he said aghast as he progressed across sub-Saharan Africa to decide how to spend the money raised by Live Aid, the world's biggest fundraising event.

I accompanied him on that trip. He was a reluctant hero who cut an unlikely figure: scruffy, bedraggled and unshaven - so much so that the President of Sudan assumed that, since I was the one wearing a suit, I must be the celebrity and tried to pin the Order of the Two Niles on me.

Some things have changed. This week Geldof was the one in the suit - a linen one, albeit worn without a shirt - and it seemed to symbolise the ease he has developed in dealing with those in power. He has dealt face to face with a succession of American presidents and British prime ministers, lobbying for debt relief and the removal of the unfair international trade practices that hold back the Third World.

But - until this week - he had not returned to Ethiopia. He always said he never would. Geldof and I kept in touch over the years, in which I chaired the boards of two development charities and he engaged in high-level lobbying. He was deluged with requests to make trips to the Third World but, though we often discussed them, he always said no. He had done his bit, he felt, and wanted to return to making music and being a father, a matter made more consuming by his messy divorce from Paula Yates and then her death, after which he became a single father to all four of her children.

So why did he go back now? "Because this time it's really f***ing serious," he told me. "All the rains have failed. Already Unicef estimates there are 60,000 severely malnourished children. Kids are beginning to die now in substantial numbers. Ethiopia has only two thirds the amount of food aid it needs to get through the next three months. By August things are going to be really sticky. And yet I do believe it can be averted, but only if another 360,000 tons of food aid are delivered."

As he arrived in Ethiopia he attacked the European Union. Its response to the impending crisis he condemned as "pathetic and appalling". Glenys Kinnock, Labour's international development spokeswoman in the European Parliament, said his comments were "unhelpful and misinformed".

But Geldof was having none of it. "Glenys Kinnock has bought into the bureaucratic construct," he counterblasted yesterday. "The EU say they've given between 40 and 44 per cent of what's needed. That's a blatant outright lie. The best estimates here are that they have sent just 28 per cent. It's clear on the ground that the EU has been double counting and reannouncing things. They're really massaging it.

"What makes matters worse is that 83 per cent of what has been delivered is cereals. But they have sent only half of what they promised in blended food and vegetable oil - which make up the vital supplementary foods malnourished children most need. Without that, more kids are going to die. I don't think the EU has got the plot yet. It's just like the 1980s with the EU sending out its emissaries to defend itself rather than to address its inefficiencies. As a citizen of the EU I have the absolute right to criticise and feel ashamed."

What adds fuel to Geldof's outrage is that, domestically, things are much improved in Ethiopia. On his last visit, Ethiopia was run by a repressive Stalinist regime that ruined agriculture and was fighting the longest war of the 20th century. "The task then was to keep people alive and wait for the political moment to pass," Geldof says. "It passed. Now they have a pragmatic decent government and developing indigenous businesses. I met a local businessman who gives 20 per cent of his profits to food relief. There has been a real change. It feels very positive."

He is upbeat too about the feeding centres he has visited in drought-hit areas. "They're not like the chaos we remember from the 1980s. There's no kids lying in pools of diarrhoea and vomit with flies everywhere. They have a good programme to control the flow of children coming in from the country. They understand nutrition a lot better. They're getting children back to health a lot quicker. It is us, not them, who are not doing our bit to avoid catastrophe."

Geldof's potency as a lobbyist always resided in more than outrage and celebrity. He has a powerful command of the complexity of the issues that underlie Third World poverty. "What's different?" he asks, rhetorically. "I'll tell you what is different. Towards the end of the 1980s whole new factors came into play. This time I've seen the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping across the plains of Ethiopia - and they are Famine, Debt, Trade and Aids. And I've seen them in f***ing spades."

Four years after Live Aid, the world changed. The Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. "The fallout was the collapse of tyrants around Africa - Mobutu, Mengistu - who had been kept in place with huge amounts of money from the Soviet Union and the United States. When we no longer needed proxy wars we wanted that money back and the issue of debt came to the fore. Huge numbers of disempowered, disenfranchised, voiceless people were suddenly asked for money they didn't have." Though some work has been done to reduce the debts, which can never realistically be repaid, the burden of what remains is a cruel and unnecessary burden to ask the poorest people in the world to carry. The evidence of that, he says, can be seen in governments such as Ethiopia's, deprived of the basic resources to fund the most elementary health care.

Geldof's visit to the southern province of Sidamo this week brought him up against the third of Africa's terrible spectres. It was once the country's bread basket - the safe place to which people were resettled during the 1980s famine. Like the nearby province of Kefa, it produces Ethiopia's only real cash crop, coffee. Globalisation has brought about a collapse in the price of the crop. It has plummeted 70 per cent in the past four years.

"There's always been drought in the south but it didn't mean famine because people there were rich enough to buy food because of the coffee crop," says Geldof. "But because their income has dropped so much they are now in near-starvation. Plus they are psychologically traumatised by the idea of famine because they've never had it, ever, and they don't know where to begin." Because of the shortfall in promised food aid, rations were recently cut there from 15 to 12.5 kilograms a month. "That is only 68 per cent of what a human being needs to stay alive. Because there are so few supplementary foods, kids there are beginning to die. The doctor gave many of those we saw just a week to live."

There is a solution. Rich nations place import tariffs on coffee. These increase with every stage of coffee processing, to discourage Africans from doing anything except export the raw beans. France has proposed a cut in the tariffs but America is refusing to have any high-level meetings to discuss it. "This is something the G8 need to address at Evian," Geldof insists.

The fourth of Geldof's apocalyptic curses is Aids. "It's the contemporary equivalent of the bubonic plague," he says. "The West was rich enough to cope, developing medicines and health education mechanisms to contain it. But here in Africa it has run riot." Two days ago he visited a hospital at Dilla in the desiccated south. "It was one shitty little hospital to deal with a million people in the area," he said. "There was one doctor there - a brilliant man - who had started doing random HIV tests. He's discovered that 14 per cent of the population is positive - double the official estimate.

"I met a pregnant woman who'd been diagnosed positive. Her reaction was African fatalism and resignation. She said her husband died of TB three months ago. I asked her how she got Aids. She said she didn't know. But she did. She just didn't want to admit that her husband had given it to her. I asked, would her baby have it; she said, why should she? But the doctor said she probably would."

Uncharacteristically, Geldof fell silent. Then he said: "A mother gives life, how could she possibly conceive of giving death?" He did something else uncharacteristic. In all his previous visits to African countries, Geldof outwitted attempts to photograph him holding a starving child. It would be exploiting individual dignity - these were not props for media images, he said, "they are people like you and me". This time he took the baby when the doctor passed her to him.

The tragedy of the child he held in his hands he knew could be multiplied a million times. There are one million Aids orphans in Ethiopia.

"It's why I praised George Bush," he said. Aid agencies were critical of his commendation but Geldof was unrepentant. "He's found $15bn (£9bn) of new money for the fight against Aids. Though we've still got to see the cheque, it's a huge amount of money and it's particularly radical for a neo- Conservative government. He's made part of it conditional on it being matched by the rest of the developed world. They should take him up on that at the G8. It would make a huge difference to the people I saw today."

Geldof is clear what the poor need from tomorrow's summit - action on Aids, trade, debt and food aid. "If the international community was serious about breaking this cycle of famine it would invest half as much in food security next year as it is paying in emergency relief this year," he said. "The G8 must not get away with doing nothing. Tony Blair mustn't leave Evian empty-handed."

There was something else that Geldof saw in Ethiopia this week. "They have a plant called the false banana. It looks like a banana tree, but produces no edible fruit. People are reduced to mashing the cellulose bark to eat that. It is a terrible metaphor: false banana, false hopes, false promises. The people of Africa deserve something better."