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I wouldn't talk to Steve [Lillywhite] then, 'cos he sat in a swivel chair and had a Duran Duran haircut. But musically, he was right. -- Gavin Friday, on the recording sessions for Boy

It Is 17 Years Since Live Aid

...and Bob Geldof is back, telling the world to listen to Africa
The Independent
Seventeen years have passed since Live Aid, but today Bob Geldof returns to the problems of Africa and the need for a radical transformation in the West's relationship with the continent.

Over the past two decades, Geldof has turned down hundreds of requests to help various bodies campaigning for the Third World and attempted to get on with the rest of his life -- as a businessman, TV executive, Internet entrepreneur and father to the four girls left in his sole care by the death of their mother, his former wife Paula Yates.

And he is still determined to prove that his chief satisfaction in life comes from his work as a rock musician.

"I've never really stopped doing things for Africa," said Geldof, speaking after coming off stage at Fowey in Cornwall. "I'm still chairman of the Band Aid Trust. Money still comes in from covenants, wills, and the record keeps selling every Christmas. We distributed a third of a million pounds to projects in Africa in the last three weeks. And then there's all the lobbying in the background. But I haven't signed up to a lot of up-front campaigning."

This morning, however, he will be going to Downing Street to present Tony Blair with a report being published to mark the start of Christian Aid Week. The document, Listen to Africa, which has been written as an open letter, will be presented by Geldof and three representatives from Christian Aid-funded organisations in Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi.

It addresses the three key concerns -- on conflict, trade and aid -- which the organisation's many partner groups throughout Africa have highlighted as their chief concerns. "With the G8 meeting next month in Canada, it is a key time to push these issues," Geldof says.

"At the risk of sounding complicit with the Government, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been incredibly brave and radical in what they have put before the G8. They got them, at Cologne, to cross the Rubicon of accepting that Third World debt was -- in terms of political reality -- unpayable, which required an entirely new approach from the rich world. And the Jubilee 2000 movement was a brilliant success in influencing that shift in agenda. But now is the time for the next big push."

Geldof and the front man of U2, fellow Irish musician Bono, have for several years been working behind the scenes to change the thinking at the highest political level. They formed a little-publicised pressure group named DATA (Debt, Aid and Trade for Africa).

The two rock stars, with two full-time campaigners, draw on research by top academics in London and Harvard, in an office paid for by the Microsoft millionaire Bill Gates and the currency speculator-turned-philanthropist George Soros, to engage in high-level but low-key lobbying. It has made the two men, who confer with their advisers at least weekly, highly knowledgeable about Africa's economic plight and the West's attempts to relate to it.

"Bono is the point man. He's got far more fame than me, particularly in the States, where celebrity equals access. Since Band Aid he has been interested in the issues, but he got involved at the time of Jubilee 2000. Bono is a Christian and Jubilee 2000 was largely driven by churches and unions."

Lobbying has brought the two men into meetings with the senior figures in the U.S. administration, including President George Bush, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill. Bono and DATA's two full-time officials, Lucy Matthews and Jamie Drummond, will travel with Mr. O'Neill on a fact-finding tour of Africa later this month. "I've got gigs, so I can't go," says Geldof, "But I'll join them in Canada for the G8."

The pair's association with the administration has not gone down well with many in the rock world. U2's guitarist, the Edge, argued all this Third World stuff threatened to damage the band's street cred, but he particularly pleaded with the pair not to "hang out with the conservatives." When they began to engage with one of America's most extreme right-wing senators, Jesse Helms, there were even some in music circles who stopped speaking to Bono and Geldof.

Geldof is unrepentant. "People go on about us supping with the devil," he says with exasperation, "but what's the point in supping with God; he's already on the side of the angels. If the devil wants to cool down the temperature in hell a little to make the lives of the world's poorest people more bearable, then I say, 'Pull up my chair to the table.' It's a balancing act. We're constantly debating: 'Should we do this, or that, or have our photo taken with this individual.' We do what we feel is right. I don't want be hubristic, but our little lobbying group is proving to be quite potent. Attitudes in Washington are shifting."

The Bush government, he believes, is "an administration in search of a foreign policy," particularly after 11 September.

"The Americans are asking, 'Where did this come from? Why do people not like us? Why don't they see our point of view?' But the key thing is they're open to persuasion, so long as you're not asking them to do anything which hurts U.S. interests. They're ruthless in pursuit of that. But they are open to the idea that there are things which can be done which help the poor -- and the people they realise after 11 September see them as an enemy -- that doesn't hurt the U.S. We can see that because we're very much in there. And if you have the ear you whisper gently."

Particular leverage has come from the fact that Bono talks to the American right from a shared Christian perspective. When Bono met Senator Helms, he told him that 2,103 biblical verses pertained to the poor, while Jesus spoke of judgement only once -- and it's not about being gay or sexual morality but about poverty. He quoted Matthew, chapter 25: "I was naked and you clothed me." The senator was moved to tears. Later he told Bono that he was ashamed of what he used to think about AIDS.

"He said he now knew that before he died he was obliged to do something about AIDS," says Geldof. "That's a real shift, and from a man whose entire previous political life I would have abhorred. People want to talk to Bono -- plus they get the autograph for their daughter."

But moral outrage is not the only weapon in their armoury. "We work on deep info, we make sure we're really across the detail so that we have the answers to whatever arguments the politicians' civil servants come up with. And we start where they are, saying, 'Look, what's the downside for the U.S. of doing this or that?'

"We start from U.S. self-interest and argue that keeping the Third World poor only feeds problems of immigration at home. We show that for the U.S. and Europe to spend more than the entire GDP of Africa on farm subsidies makes no financial sense. We point out that even Adam Smith talks of the need for the protection of infant industries, which is what the World Trade Organisation should be nurturing in Africa, instead of undermining them."

He and Bono, Geldof says, have become "the Laurel and Hardy of Third World debt.

"We play soft cop, hard cop because in the end I always lose my patience and he's always eminently reasonable. You find that people like Condie Rice -- who's a really smart person, very funny and a lovely woman -- are wide open to coherent intellectual argument."

Now the message to the White House and Downing Street will be to listen to Africa. "Everyone in Africa knows that the only aid projects which didn't end as expensive white elephants are the ones that listened to local people."

The Christian Aid report says rich nations must commit more resources to finding a solution to the military conflicts in Africa, as well as to the massive damage AIDS is wreaking throughout the continent.

They must talk not about free trade but about trade that discriminates in favour of the poorest to allow infant industries to grow. And they should honour their commitments to raise overseas aid budgets to 0.7 per cent of the national wealth of the industrialised world. Much of this money must then be focused on community-based development initiatives which put Africans in the driving seat.

"At the end of every argument about Africa is the reality that nothing will improve if the basics -- health, education and primary agriculture -- aren't sorted out," Geldof says.

Not that he agrees with everything in the report, such as its insistence that aid should not be tied to the requirement that African countries follow specified economic policies: "You have to lay down conditions, otherwise you have no counter to the argument that, without them, the Africans would just blow all the fucking money."

With Geldof the maverick, some things, seemingly, do not change.



© The Independent, 2002. All rights reserved.