Loading...

Saturday, May 21, 2005

A Different Crusade: Africa Needs More Than European Platitudes

By Bob Geldof

THE American dream was built upon an extraordinary collective act of willed amnesia, which allowed the American people to believe that they could forget their miserable past on this great new continental tabula rasa. Europe cannot shake off its past so easily. There is no terra nova for this old continent. To use the Americanism, we carry our baggage with us, like overburdened turtles. Slowly, ponderously, heavily weighing our psychologies so that no bureaucratic structure can remove the awful scars of memory. Europe has drawn all its energy from failure. Unlike America, the European project can be seen in many ways as an escape route from historical trauma, political failure, philosophical depravity, war, genocide and economic backwardness.

The great sum of European thought must be the idea of the individual. From the Judaeo-Christian notion, the sacred Western ideal of the sanctity of individual life, through the God-like “ego sum”. What other continent could give us: Magna Carta; Habeas Corpus; the Reformation; the Enlightenment; “I think, therefore I am”? Descartes had to be European. Where else but Europe would the identification of the primary psychological motor of the individual in society be defined as the ego, or the revolutionary idea of human rights whereby each individual is made inviolate through inalienable entitlements?

If there are many European cultures framed around the pan-continental “I”, then it makes it more difficult to have a solidarity of “us”, an identifiable “we”. In order to find solidarity we need to find first who we are.

Europe’s child, America, was founded primarily on the individual’s need for essentially unfettered existence. The need for “I” to pursue its individual happiness. And still, through its constant myth-making movies, America perpetuates the notion of the ultimate individual pitted against unknowable, conspiratorial bodies that wish somehow to curtail that independence. We are beginning to feel something of that in our union, and it is making us uneasy.

The individual is always exceptional, entire unto himself, only responsible for his own actions. Take this to its conclusion and you arrive at the modern state, which practises a dangerous form of national exceptionalism, answerable to no-one but themselves. Europe has had its fair share of charismatic leaders, including Churchill, Napoleon and sundry unmentionables. But the people who built the European Union were almost anonymous technocrats who were trying to escape from the interminable grand plans and charisma that had brought the continent to its knees.

Idealistic Eurocrats have pretended the past is of no consequence to the European project. We start anew. Year Zero is Maastricht. But it’s not, and all of us know this because we live who we are. We live the past by the hour.

It is the Eurocrat’s great conceit that history has been erased by bureaucratic sleight of hand. But it is also the great unspoken truth of the European citizenry that it has not. And it is precisely that murderous history which is driving us reluctantly, suspiciously, together. European countries live in self-interested amity rather than in common proprietorial solidarity. One can clearly see how my native Ireland has gained from European benefits – there is hardly a single road without a sign acknowledging the EU for its financial support. Greece, Spain and Portugal have all benefited from major fiscal transfers from richer countries. But as the EU has enlarged, its cohesion – though not its rationale – has been stretched to its limits.

In many ways, 2003 was a turning point. Our poor uncherished European Community shattered into a thousand factions: old vs new; big vs small; south vs east; social integrationists vs liberal expansionists. The bottom line is that German office workers do not want to subsidise Polish peasants, French factory workers are scared of competition from Slovaks and everyone seems uneasy with Turkey. We cannot speak with a single voice and we cannot agree where our borders should lie.

In the 1990s, European leaders focused – disgracefully – on passing the Maastricht Treaty while the Balkans burned. Europeans put their internal economic and bureaucratic cohesion above their responsibilities to their neighbours. As hundreds of thousands of Bosnians came to our borders, we turned, as ever , to Washington and prayed for help. A few years later, in Kosovo, European governments were belatedly part of the solution as well as the problem. And finally, in Macedonia, they acted before a crisis turned into a tragedy.

When I sang with my old band, The Boomtown Rats, I played all over Europe, from Brussels to Barcelona to Bucharest, Vigo to Vilnius, from Genoa to the Gdansk shipyards. Three decades of travel showed me the deep bond of intellectual identity that holds Eastern and Western Europe together. There is such a thing as a European culture and it co-exists alongside European cultures. Brussels seems to misunderstand this. They call it a European ideal. There isn’t one of those but there is a European idealism, which has been perverted into a wholly unconvincing Euro polity. And although we finally stumbled into taking responsibility for our neighbourhood at the beginning of the 21st century – begrudgingly enlarging to let in the former Soviet states – European citizens, perhaps in retreat from the moral, and indeed financial disaster of colonialism, still lack an ethic of global responsibility.

For Europe to work, we need to understand why there is no solidarity. We need to build on the Western idea of the individual, which only functions when it acts in concert with the common good, to find things to bind us together – in the absence of a Soviet threat. The truth is, we don’t have the same common feeling for people in Bulgaria that people in the United States, under the cult of the flag or the fetish of the constitution, feel for someone from Minneapolis or Texas. And we won’t get it by taking refuge in our Christian past, or seeing ourselves ridiculously as a counterweight to American power, at a time when China and India’s success is the big story of our time. The solution cannot be to retreat behind our protectionist fences, our very large, well-tended hedge. Europe cannot exist by or unto itself. It must engage with the world.

The north coast of Africa is just eight miles from Europe, but it could be in another world. It drifts away from us, propelled by the enormity of its poverty and our exhausted indifference. Almost 20 years ago, I stood in the death camps of northern Ethiopia. As far as I could see, people, often naked, streamed out of the blasted hills and plains in long lines to a place they’d heard others had come, to sit and wait and die perhaps, until someone found them, and could maybe help. The anger I felt then has lasted 20 years.

But on a visit to Ethiopia last year, I felt a different, newer despair. This time everything was green, but the people were still starving. They were used to the irregular rainfalls, and would normally allow for the subsequent crop failures by selling their coffee on the world market. Except this year, the price of coffee had collapsed by 70% because Vietnam – a country they had never heard of – had entered the market a continent away, and depressed the world market price. We call that globalisation. They simply call it “death”.

I never thought I would see feeding camps in Ethiopia again, but in those 20 years, things had got worse. Africa has grown poorer by 25%. A typical African country today has the gross domestic product of a UK town of 20,000 people. Half of its people subsist on 65p or less a day. The UN spends $1.3 billion a year on peacekeeping, but a fifth of all Africans live in countries riven by civil war. This instability helped spread Aids which, unknown in 1984, was now killing 6000 a day. The dead can’t plant, so people were starving again. Only one in 400 victims was taking anti-retroviral drugs. Net investment south of the Sahara was a pathetic $3.9bn and was worse than in the past six years.

Europe is failing Africa – our immediate neighbour. Our common history goes back millennia – through the black popes and saints, the Islamic period, the crusades, the slave trade and colonialism and post- independence. But it is our future together that is most at stake.

Europe should now stand on the threshold of a great new idea – the ability to lead the planet on a different type of crusade. To make poverty history. It can, through our example of turning a battered, ruined, bankrupt, starving and war-torn continent into a prosperous and democratic one. This is the great modern European achievement. The problem is that we have never had a shared sense of the continent’s responsibilities to the rest of the world. Each country has gone through its own national rethink, overcoming the knowledge of what we are to the ideal of what we could be. The imperial countries through a mix of naked self-interest and guilt, the Nordics as part of a politically and religiously driven internationalism, the Germans out of historical restitution. And now the EU needs to urgently rethink its fraudulent, inadequate and frankly lying policies on debt, trade and aid.

The Pope enjoined Europe to be open to the other continents. Africa makes a mockery of that ideal. Each of the principles that lie behind the European project – equality, mutuality and solidarity – has been perverted into its opposite: dependence, double standards and duplicity. We drop meagre scraps from our tables of prosperity with one hand, then scoop them up with the other. We talk about partnership but we have enslaved a continent with loans, forcing the poorest countries in the world to spend more every year on interest payments than on healthcare and education.

Some European countries, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, have yet to cancel all the debt owed by HIPCs (Highly Indebted Poor Countries). Others, like Germany and Italy, have promised to do it but not delivered. And many EU states are disgracefully late in paying their contributions to the HIPC Trust Fund for cancelling multilateral debt. In a nutshell: this reluctance, this tardiness, this grinding unwillingness, kills people.

We lecture them on free trade, but close our markets to their agricultural produce and swamp them with subsidised imports of European products. Each European cow gets subsidies worth 157 times what the EU gives to each African. Our double standards are almost designed to keep Africans in poverty while impoverishing Europe morally. We force them to sell us commodities but prevent them from adding value to them. An African who wants to sell pineapples in the EU faces a tariff of 9% for fresh fruit, 32% for tinned pineapples and 42% for pineapple juice. This goes back to the original perversion of Adam Smith by European colonialists who decided Africa’s comparative advantage would be its poverty.

Forget the invisible hand of the market, this is the malignant cheating hand of the protection racket that much EU trade regulation is. Europeans boast about our aid programmes, but over half the money is spent in middle-income countries, mostly in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. The same is true of many member states: just 6% of Greek aid goes to low-income countries; 15% for Austria; 24% for Finland.

I have worked quite intimately with all the bigger governments. I have thrown up my hands in despair about what they do, what they won’t do and what they pretend they do. Even though all European countries promised 30 years ago to increase aid to 0.7% of GDP, only four of them actually have. Italy – the world’s fifth biggest economy – gives only 0.17%.

Worse still, many European countries continue to tie their aid to contracts for their national companies. The money is designed to increase profits rather than reduce poverty. The last survey of aid in Italy showed that 92% of its aid was tied. And over half of Austrian and Spanish aid is tied today. European civil society – including the Catholic Church – must also examine its impact on Africa, and confront some of the theologically suspect, as well as criminally stupid, shibboleths that have held back development. Many Christians must have shared Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s reaction to the nomination of Pope Benedict XVI when he asked him to be “someone more open to a reasonable position with regards to condoms and HIV/Aids”.

Throughout history, those who succeeded economically have “kicked away the ladder” beneath to prevent others from scrambling up behind. Today, we are imposing impossible conditions on poor countries in the form of benign interference which actually prevents them developing. That’s what was so unusual about the US Marshall Plan which, after the second world war, revived Europe. In reality, America’s genuine, legendary generosity was also in its self-interest. The US needed to create a viable trading partner for its uniquely booming post-war economy, a bulwark against the Soviets threatening Stalinism and, most importantly, a philosophical partner giving Europe an absolute identity as part of the West as opposed to turning eastwards.

Today, we can put self-interest and European idealism together, and develop our own version of the Marshall Plan for Africa. It is not just that an Africa freed from the yoke of extreme poverty will be less of a security threat. In the 1960s, South Korea had a GDP per capita the same size as Nigeria, and look at how our economies and societies have benefited from Asia’s rise.

Having spent time with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, I know that while their eyes may glaze over in European talks, they light up when they speak of Africa. In Africa, we find a focus for the latent common idealism of the continent, which allows European citizens to make a common cause with their political leaders. A solidarity of concern that can be matched by a solidarity of self-interest at the bureaucratic level. This is a unique year to talk about these issues: in the UK we have a concurrency of presidencies, that of the G8 and the EU and coincidentally, the 20th anniversary of Live Aid. More than that: we have a plan.

Earlier this year the Africa Commission, of which I was a member, produced a comprehensive report that looked at how we can move from a piecemeal approach to a blueprint for ending extreme poverty in Africa. The most important conclusion is that the crucial factor underlying sub- Saharan Africa’s difficulties over the past 40 years is the weakness of governance and the absence of an effective state.

It was Africa’s misfortune to have been plundered and colonised by Europe at a time when the concept of the nation state was firmly entrenched as a primary determinant of the historical process. The consequence is that today, the continent is divided into 46 states, more than three times the number in Asia, whose land mass is 50% larger. More African states are entirely landlocked (15) than in the rest of the entire world, and no African country is free from problems of access, security and economic stability.

But what unites many of these states is that they don’t work. That is why one of the commission’s main recommendations was to make a major investment to improve Africa’s structural and administrative capacity. Effective states need accountability. Like the EU, African governments have to ensure that their systems are open to the scrutiny of their citizens. That means strengthening parliaments, the media, trade unions and the judiciary. Rich nations also have responsibility to stop corruption. As Joseph DesirĂ© Mobutu, the unlamented thug who looted Zaire into paralysis, said: “It takes two to corrupt – the corrupter and the corrupted.”

They must track down money looted from Africa, now sitting in foreign bank accounts, and send it back to those from whom it was stolen. Western banks must be legally obliged to inform on suspicious accounts. As in Europe, those who give bribes must be tackled as well as those who take them. Foreign companies, especially those in the oil and mining industries, must be pressed to publish what they pay to governments. And firms who bribe should be refused export credits.

Above all, in a continent of thousands of ethnicities where the nation state has never really taken root, we need to support Africa’s attempts to build a union for their continent, like the European Union. Indeed it is conceivable that Africa needs it more than Europe. When a citizen perceives no benefit from the state, he will look to give his loyalties elsewhere: in Africa’s case, to the clan or tribe and more recently, to Islam in the north and evangelical Christianity in the south. Africans have always understood that spiritual power is political power: something we in Europe are having to rediscover to our dismay.

The shameful trade barriers that tax Africa’s goods as they enter the rich world’s markets must be dismantled. African nations must themselves reform excessive bureaucracy, cumbersome customs procedures and corruption by public servants. The way African nations work with one another in the continent’s regional economic communities must be improved.

So what can Europe do? Trade justice. Drop the debt. Provide more and better aid. We must draw deep down on our history of building effective states, investing in infrastructure, supporting democratic transitions and regional economic integration.

One of the things that unites the European club is smugness, though when it comes to Africa, we have little to be smug about. In the past few years, George W Bush has doubled aid to Africa, introduced the Millennium Challenge Account, and is giving $3bn a year to Aids. He challenged Europe to respond, but nothing happened.

If people want Europe to balance America, let’s match that record and lead in the alleviation of the greatest moral sore and potentially dangerous political problem of the early 21st century: the grotesque impoverishment of an entire continent.

The cost of the Africa Commission’s whole package of proposals would be an extra $75bn a year; this in international terms is an absolute pittance. Roughly the cost of a half a stick of chewing gum per day per rich country citizen. Africa can pay for about a third of this if we open our markets to them and let them trade. The rest must be financed by increases in aid, which should be doubled now, from $25bn a year to $50bn.

We must also end the “negative aid” constituted by debt repayments. That means 100% cancellation of Africa’s debts to institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. The amounts involved are large, but the costs to Europeans would be tiny (just 10p in every £100 we earn). And look what we’d gain. As well as ending the tyranny of extreme poverty that kills eight million people every year, we would have an African neighbour that is not a security threat. And a new market on our doorstep with hundreds of millions of potential consumers.

By helping Africa, Europeans might even find ourselves gaining an identity in the same way that the West did through the Marshall Plan. The original generation of Europeans had a big cause: the end of war. Their successors embarked on the necessary – if unglamourous – process of putting the European economy back together again, a process that ended with the creation of the single European market and currency. Finally last year, we ended the third phase of European integration: spreading democracy to Eastern Europe.

The next phase cannot just be about passing constitutions or developing new types of regulation. We need a European project that can inspire Europe’s people, by closing the gap between European values and our role in the world. Europe’s leaders must now live up to these values. We can find solidarity among ourselves through our commitment to the world. Not the narrow negative solidarity of meanness, nor the thin join of imposed union. Not the odious odes to ersatz joy, but a great European “us” in a solidarity of justice, of value, a solidarity of the European soul.

Sunday Herald

No comments: