'Bracelets and pop concerts can't solve our problems'

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The Independent Online

One Saturday afternoon in July Africans gathered in bars to watch Wimbledon, sat in the park eating ice cream, and scraped together a basic meal of maize porridge and boiled greens. Hardly anyone knew that in London, thousands had gathered to watch as pop stars and fans gathered in Hyde Park for Live 8, a concert that was meant to be staged for Africa's benefit.

Across Africa, charity workers wore the white wristbands of the Make Poverty History campaign. In the first months of the year, Action Aid sent a bus festooned with ribbons through the continent, to drum out support for the campaign.

Away from the publicity trail, 3.6 million people in Niger wondered how they could eat, while UN pleas for emergency food aid were ignored. As the crisis grew, the Niger government refused to distribute free food, claiming it would distort market economics. Aid only came flooding in after Western media broadcast pictures of dying children. Barely a month later, children in Malawi began to sicken from eating roots and wild berries after the rains failed. Again, the first pleas for help went unheeded.

Africa's campaign has also been derailed politically. When Tony Blair set up the Commission for Africa, he appointed African leaders who had claimed to be "on message", promoting democracy and economic development in their countries. Shortly afterwards the most prominent of these commission members, Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, banned public demonstrations and ordered police to fire live ammunition on peaceful protesters in the aftermath of a confused election result. AsMr Zenawi's party and the main opposition claimed victory, thousands of opposition supporters were arrested. This month, 131 politicians and civil society activists face charges of genocide and treason. Among them are two Make Poverty History campaigners.

And after winning plaudits for implementing an anti-Aids strategy, Uganda's President, Yoweri Museveni, allowed his wife, Janet, to speak against the use of condoms. Predictably, the rate of HIV infection began to rise. After years of presenting himself as a benign leader of a country that had been plagued by dictators, Mr Museveni changed the country's constitution to let himself stand for a third term. As the electoral commission set the date for elections next year, Mr Museveni's main opponent, Kizza Besigye, was facing charges of treason and rape.

The problem with the Make Poverty History campaign is that Africa has been at the receiving end of countless initiatives, campaigns and strong statements. When the war in Darfur began in 2003, the conflict was seen as a private war between militias. A year later, the international community woke up to the fact that thousands of civilians were being killed by their own government, aided by the brutal fighters who became known as the janjaweed. The US declared the war to be a genocide, the UN called it the worst humanitarian disaster of the time and the nascent African Union decided that Darfur was to be its first big test. It sent in 6,000 troops, but the soldiers have been passive bystanders. Throughout 2005, the war has continued.

Little wonder that when asked about the Make Poverty History campaign, a woman sitting in the park on the afternoon of Live 8 asked: "We have problems in Africa, big problems. What can plastic bracelets and pop concerts do to solve them?"

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