Mark Steel: Global poverty, the free market - and Mariah Carey

She probably wonders why Africa doesn't simply sack its manager
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The Independent Online

More disturbing than the greed of people selling tickets for an anti-poverty gig for vast sums is the state of mind of people buying them. A thousand pounds to see Dido? Surely the board of eBay should be prosecuted for profiting out of this kind of mental illness.

But the almost universal condemnation of this avarice is comforting, especially for anyone who remembers the 1980s. If the spirit of that time still prevailed, young bankers would have screamed "Quick - get into poverty gig bonds, on the market at one text, selling for a monkey.Buy buy buy."

Businessmen still make huge profits, but now have to squirm and justify their methods, as naked greed is no longer widely acceptable. For example, hardly anyone defends Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United. Glazer seems perplexed by this, as if no one would question that a football club should be driven solely by profit. When Manchester United has a good day on the Dow Jones index, he'll expect thousands of fans to line the streets and cheer a portfolio as it's driven through Salford on an open top bus.

The difference between the Eighties and now can be illustrated by the contrast between Live Aid and Make Poverty History. Live Aid was a charity, which meant it could be supported by anyone, including the corporations and politicians who helped cause the problem in the first place, whereas the current campaign is a demand for change. So some people denounce it, insisting Africa is poor because African leaders are corrupt. Apparently, they indulge in practices such as fiddling elections so members of their family become president, starting wars on false evidence, and using the fact that their husband is ruler to charge 30 grand for talking a pile of spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

It's claimed it's for the good of the poor that we shouldn't relieve them of their debt, as this will only aid their corrupt politicians. Which is handy, because it turns out the kindest thing to do is keep all your money for yourself. If you're really concerned about poverty, when you've got some spare money, buy yourself something like a 96- inch plasma wide-screen surround-sound television, and you'll help sort out Uganda.

So the anti-poverty campaign is at its strongest when it's confronting the companies and governments that exploit Africa. At the very least, this causes them huge embarrassment, which is why the leader of the World Bank recently thanked the anti-poverty movement for "pointing out the problem". As if the multinationals haven't noticed before, and now they'll go: "Oh my word. I had no idea, when we forced them to turn their crops to coffee and paid them threepence a sack and charged nine quid a jar and kicked them off their farms to build an oil pipeline through their village and replaced the only school in the hemisphere with an all-night McDonald's that we were making them poor."

Poverty isn't an accident. In South Africa, there are hundreds of thousands of people without electricity because the privatised companies turned the supply off to the squatter camps. In Tanzania, the water supply has been sold to private firms who deny their product to those who can't pay.

Bob Geldof is at his most potent when he speaks with fury about the inertia of world leaders on such issues. But the message is weakened when the corporate bodies are involved, as their participation depends on diluting the demands made on them. Similarly, it's harder to take the campaign seriously when one of the performers will be Mariah Carey. She probably wonders why Africa doesn't simply sack its manager, and get one who demands better caterers and a champagne well in the dressing room.

The G8 leaders try to bridge the demands of campaigners with their own values by suggesting the free market contains the solutions. The free market has been tried before in Africa, offering solutions such as slavery and the Empire. Today, it provides policies such as the one just handed to Malawi, which isn't on the list of countries relieved of debt. One third of Malawi's land is now dedicated to producing tobacco for the West, following interventions from the IMF and the World Bank. Three weeks ago, the companies announced their price was down 23 per cent from last year, crippling the whole place. So the companies get richer and many more will starve, but for the multinationals nothing can exist without profit, so they can't see the world in any other way.

That's why it has little effect on them when Bob Geldof says that 50,000 children a day die from poverty. Maybe he'd get through if, instead, he said that each day 50,000 potential production units cease to operate through insufficient maintenance.