Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Bob Geldof and the white man's burden

His crusade lacks respect for Africans. Bob will fix it for the weeping folk in the dark continent
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The Independent Online

Poor Lenny Henry. Sorry Lenny Henry. There he was having a nice time with his missus at a wedding party, when I regaled him about the discriminatory Live8 bonanza. I only went up to him because Red Nose portrays Africa as full of possibilities, not an incurable basket case. He would understand, I thought, and maybe pull some strings.

Poor Lenny Henry. Sorry Lenny Henry. There he was having a nice time with his missus at a wedding party, when I regaled him about the discriminatory Live8 bonanza. I only went up to him because Red Nose portrays Africa as full of possibilities, not an incurable basket case. He would understand, I thought, and maybe pull some strings.

He does understand. As Andy Kershaw wrote in this newspaper, only one African act has been chosen for the concerts and protests to shame the powerful G8 nations who have so long neglected and exploited Africa. Others were not good enough, says Bob Geldof, bossman of this event. "If we had only African musicians how many people would want to come?" Since Kershaw was never suggesting "only" African musicians should appear, this riposte is ridiculous and revealing.

Joss Stone, a young girlie from deepest rural Devon, unknown until last year, is included (people will come to see her because she can sing and she is a lovely blonde), but the vastly popular Congolese groups that sell out across Europe are not invited (perhaps because, sadly, they are not blonde).

The globally respected Irish firebrand who can move mountains for a cause, who has raised much money for the African continent, is nevertheless unable to drop the imperial template that limits his vision and his imagination. He is the saviour; Africans the saved, or will be, one day when he has his way. His furious morality absolutely condemns doubters. Bob will fix it for the weeping folk in the dark continent. Unlike Lenny Henry, he cares but doesn't understand.

Geldof speaks and doesn't listen. He looks but cannot see - not how he is implicated in the enduring and devastating myths of the past. If he understood his own blindness, he could do much to knock down this colonial handicap, which is so destructive to both the ruled and the rulers.

Some of the most ignorant and virulent letters I get are from white Britons who were once in Africa as settlers. They still believe colonialism was entirely altruistic and benign - and that Africans are forever damned. Here is an example, from Pamela of Knightsbridge: "My grandfather spent the majority of his life with [David] Livingstone ... That the white immigrant population brought their expertise and education to a country that perhaps did not want to move into the 20th century is our only failing ... Our hundreds of black employees and their families on our estate did a war dance for us to beg us to stay since they knew where their lives would be heading ... Africa struggles on and as usual the British people do and are asked to pour more money into this sad continent ..."

In the 21st century, millions of Africans are not pathetic, dumb, ignorant or irredeemably dependent creatures of the European collective psyche. They know all too well the endemic problems blighting their countries. They are enraged with their own corrupt leaders and are speaking out against foreign aid policies that only serve to preserve tyrannical regimes. They are incisive critics of the neoliberal economics forced on African nations by international agencies, of the looting of resources by the West, which carries on unabated, and are no longer pacified by Band Aid promises of salvation. Go to Pambazuka-news@pambazuka.org, a site with sharp intellectual and political debates by Africans, and you can see the Africa that is unfolding.

Sir Bob should log in and read this, by Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, co-director for Justice Africa, based in the capital of Uganda, my birthplace, Kampala. He acknowledges that Live8 is right to focus on the structural linkages between poverty and the greed of the West. It is time to break the connection between "aid-addicted Africans and Western aid pushers", not least because so little of it gets to where it should. But Abdul-Raheem is apoplectic about Geldof's forthcoming concerts:

"Did they ask Hugh Masekela and was he too tired? Did Miriam Makeba say she was too busy? ... These omissions are not because of ignorance but because of a mindset that 'infantilises' Africans and cannot trust them to do anything for themselves, including telling the world where our shoes are pinching us. We are not even experts on our own poverty. Africans are the only people doomed to be perpetual students of their own condition and further condemned to being perpetually taught by outsiders as experts, consultants, activists, defenders, spokespeople ... It is the repackaging of the 'white man's burden' ideology."

That colonial mindset means Africans are only ever seen in the west as villains or victims. Yet millions are survivors, blessed with amazing grace, compassionate, hopeful, creative, enterprising and fiercely independent people. Technological revolutions are freeing up potential as never before. Mobile phones - 82 million African users today - are driving economic development that bypasses bribe-bloated government officials. People are hungry for progress and nothing will stop them, except our outdated aid responses and immoral trade restrictions that stifle their aspirations and take away their dignity.

This week sees a significant breakthrough for the Trade Not Aid campaign. Andrew Rugasira, an African coffee exporter, is launching the first big partnership between his company, Rwenzori Coffee, and Waitrose - a package based on profit sharing with the farmers. More of this please.

Our migration policies could be a resource for advancement. What if we used our aid budget to finance a new migration flow policy for Africans? Allow skilled and unskilled individuals to come over here on three-year permits with tax benefits and an additional sum to be paid to them only when they return. This is a far better response to the brain drain than an outright ban on people seeking to better themselves abroad, which is punishing the most ambitious. The money would then go to families, not to political and military rulers.

The flow could go the other way too. We have many extraordinary African professionals in the United Kingdom. We Ugandan Asians have moaned enough about what we lost; we should now think of our debt to the country that made us. If the British government funded projects to enable successful migrants from Africa to contribute their skills - with due humility - imagine how much could be achieved. These innovative policies could give back respect to Africa.

Geldof's current crusade lacks respect for Africans. If he doesn't turn things around fast, his legacy will be cast. His African critics (ingrates one and all) will brand him a colonial bwana. And he will only get more livid and perhaps ever less effective which, to use his own favourite term, would be a fucking scandal.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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