Do stars really aid the cause?

You bought the wristband, went to the concert, joined the march and rejoiced when a deal was struck to save Africa. But don't be fooled - nothing has changed

The demands were straightforward and reasonable: rich countries should boost aid in line with their unmet 35-year-old promises; cancel the debts of the 62 poorest countries; set dates for the abolition of subsidies and other protectionist support to Western farmers, and stop forcing liberalisation and privatisation on poor countries, whether in trade negotiations or as conditions of aid and debt deals.

Six days later, in the shadow of the 7 July bombs that ripped through central London, the Gleneagles summit ended to rock-star cheers. "This has been the most important summit there ever has been for Africa," Bob Geldof said at the post-summit press conference. "There are no equivocations. Africa and the poor of that continent have got more from the last three days than they have ever got at any previous summit...

"On aid, 10 out of 10. On debt, eight out of 10. On trade ... it is quite clear that this summit, uniquely, decided that enforced liberalisation must no longer take place," he said, before finishing with a flourish. "That is a serious, excellent result on trade."

Bono, his voice cracking with emotion, concurred. "We are talking about $25bn of new money.... The world spoke and the politicians listened."

Journalists and campaigners broke into spontaneous applause; the next day's media coverage led with Geldof's "mission accomplished" verdict. But as the millions who signed up to Make Poverty History (MPH) and Live8 rejoiced, inside the upper echelons of MPH all hell was breaking loose. "They've shafted us," a press officer from a British development organisation screamed down the phone.

Indeed they had. Moments earlier, Kumi Naidoo, the veteran South African anti-apartheid campaigner and current chair of MPH's international umbrella, the Global Call to Action against Poverty (G-Cap), had delivered the coalition's official response. "The people have roared but the G8 has whispered. The promise to deliver [more aid] by 2010 is like waiting five years before responding to the tsunami."

MPH officials knew that the G8's announcements on aid, trade and debt were not only grossly inadequate to help poor countries reach the UN's development goals by 2015. They were also bogus - and MPH had briefed the rock stars to that effect. More than half of the promised $50bn (£28bn) in aid - which wouldn't kick in until 2010 - wasn't new money, but a dishonest amalgam of old pledges, future aid budgets and debt relief. And despite agreeing that "poor countries should be free to determine their own economic policies", only Britain had announced that it would no longer tie overseas aid to free market reforms - a promise it would break in the G8 debt deal.

The US, by contrast, had made it clear at Gleneagles that aid increases would require "reciprocal liberalisation" by developing countries. Worse, as Yifat Susskind, associate director of the US-based women's human rights organisation, Madre, explains, Bush's "millennium challenge account", praised by Bono and Geldof, "explicitly ties aid to co-operation in the US's 'war on terror'".

The much-lauded June G7 (G8 minus Russia) finance ministers' "$55bn" debt deal, in which 18 countries - 14 of them African - would receive "100 per cent multilateral debt cancellation", with 20 more countries soon to follow, was a similar pop-star-veiled deception. In reality, the G7 only agreed to take over the debt repayments of those countries to three of the world's 19 multilateral creditors - the IMF, World Bank and the African Development Bank (ADB) - meaning that they would continue to be saddled with crippling debts owed to the other 16.

And the $55bn would be worth little more than $1bn a year - the amount paid in annual interest payments to the World Bank, IMF and ADB by the 18 countries together. To put this in context, African countries have $295bn debt stock, having already paid back $550bn in interest on $540bn in loans between 1970 and 2002. In 2003, developing countries paid out $23.6bn in debt servicing.

Despite the G8's promise that debt relief would be "unconditional", the 18 countries selected had just completed nine years of neoliberal structural adjustment under the IMF/World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) scheme. The 20 countries also earmarked for debt cancellation must also submit to the HIPC process. For every dollar received in debt relief, poor countries will lose a dollar in aid.

As Eric Toussaint, of the Belgium-based Committee for the Abolition of the Third World Debt, argues: "This precious funding will only be returned if countries meet 'specific policy criteria' - more long years of privatisation and liberalisation ... For Geldof to stand there and say that conditionality is over was a lie." The same is true of trade. Contrary to Geldof's announcement, the G8 did not decide that rich countries would no longer force through neoliberal trade policies.

Despite nearly a year of lobbying for G8 countries to change course to meet the UN's millennium development goals, Gleneagles, according to Claire Melamed from Christian Aid, was a "grave disappointment". Senegalese economist Demba Moussa Dembele, of the African Forum on Alternatives, is more forceful: "People must not be fooled by the celebrities: Africa got nothing."

Geldof and Bono's endorsement of the G8 deal came as a blow to many within Make Poverty History, ensuring that the issues of Africa, poverty and development disappeared from the spotlight within days of the summit's end. Four months on, MPH's silence is deafening.

The coalition has not disbanded, though - at least not yet. MPH's international umbrella, the Global Call to Action against Poverty, will carry on after the Hong Kong WTO ministerial meeting in December, while the signs are that MPH will not last beyond January. Members feel unable to cope with the strain the coalition places on time and resources.

In the depressing aftermath of Gleneagles, the political disagreements that gripped MPH - between the powerful right-wing grouping of government-friendly aid agencies and charities effectively running MPH (led by Oxfam and including the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Save the Children and Comic Relief) and the more progressive yet smaller NGOs such as War on Want and the World Development Movement - have escalated. But this time, the unhappiness at how MPH has been manoeuvred so closely to New Labour by leading charities and celebrities stretches beyond the coalition's radical fringe.

"The campaign has been too superficial," argues Christian Aid's head of policy, Charles Abugre. "A serious occasion was turned into a celebration of celebrities." Instead of criticising Blair and Brown, MPH spin doctors and their cast of celebrities went out of their way to praise them. The news that MPH was organising a massive demonstration in Edinburgh on the eve of G8 was quickly corrected by MPH as a "walk ... to welcome the G8 leaders to Scotland ... The emphasis is on fun in the sun."

Members of MPH's coordinating team had to face down efforts from within to secure a positive reaction to the G8 communiqué. According to one insider, this came after weeks of pressure on some NGOs to "clear delicate stories with the Treasury", and attempts by Justin Forsyth, Oxfam's former policy chief turned Downing Street adviser, to pressure leading NGO officials "to refrain from criticising the Government". Following Forsyth's anger at Kumi Naidoo's assessment of the G8, the pair had to be kept separate backstage.

The debate is most intense over the organisation of Live8, which to many has come to symbolise the damaging behaviour of Geldof, Bono and Comic Relief's Richard Curtis. "There were millions watching, but what was the analysis? What was the message?" asks Charles Abugre, who believes Make Poverty History's methodology set the tone for the Live8 whitewash. "It was one of handouts and charity."

There has been little coverage of how bitterly most MPH members feel about the concerts, which were organised separately by Geldof and Curtis but with the full knowledge of Oxfam, Comic Relief and the Treasury. This is not just because they overshadowed MPH's rally in Edinburgh on 2 July: campaigners feel Live8 and Geldof hijacked the MPH campaign for a different cause. Their focus was not on global poverty, but Africa. And their demands were not those of MPH, but of the Commission for Africa, a Government-sponsored think-tank committed to free-market capitalism.

The coalition's anger has intensified over revelations about Live8's paternalistic treatment of African campaigners and their relationship to corporations operating on the continent. Firoze Manji, the co-director of Fahamu, an African social justice network and a member of G-Cap, recounts how the African coalition had planned a concert in Johannesburg in early July to be held in one of the townships. According to Manji, a meeting of Oxfam GB, Curtis, Geldof and Kumi Naidoo cancelled it in favour of Live8.

Geldof, having excluded African artists from the London concert, eventually gave his blessing to "Africa Calling", a hastily arranged concert in Cornwall. The sponsors included Nestlé, accused of benefiting from the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa by selling more milk substitute products; Rio Tinto, the world's largest mining corporation, condemned for alleged human rights and environmental abuses; and Britain's biggest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems - which, according Mike Lewis of the UK's Campaign Against Arms Trade, is "fuelling conflicts across Africa". Criticism of MPH's celebrity set has particularly angered Oxfam, and insiders believe the agency will lead a breakaway from other MPH members once the coalition disbands early next year, taking Comic Relief and Bono's charity - Debt Aids Trade Africa - with it. Given Oxfam's free-trade solutions to Third World poverty, and - along with Curtis, Bono and Geldof - its leadership's close relationship to New Labour, this scenario could be an encouraging development for efforts to realign MPH with the "global justice movement".

But it will not be enough. The failure of MPH to achieve its political demands cannot be laid at the door of Oxfam, Geldof and co. By being too dependent on lobbying, celebrities and the media, by failing to give ownership of the campaign to southern hemisphere social movements, by watering down the demands agreed by grassroots movements at the World Social Forum, and by legitimising the G8 summit, the campaign was doomed from the start. Ten out of 10 on aid, eight out of 10 on debt? More like G8, Africa nil.

A version of this article appears in the latest issue of 'Red Pepper' (www.redpepper.org.uk), on sale from Monday

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