Where is the bad cop?

A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian published a column by George Monbiot entitled “Bards of the Powerful.” He accused Bono and Bob Geldof of legitimising the G8’s role in Africa through their cosy relationship with Bush and Blair. His column followed soon in the footsteps of news that criticism of those leaders (it’s never been clear whether that is merely over the Iraq war, or more generally) was to be forbidden at today’s Live 8 concerns.

Monbiot comments that:

The two musicians are genuinely committed to the cause of poverty reduction. They have helped secure aid and debt relief packages worth billions of dollars. They have helped to keep the issue of global poverty on the political agenda. They have mobilised people all over the world. These are astonishing achievements, and it would be stupid to disregard them.

The problem is that they have assumed the role of arbiters: of determining on our behalf whether the leaders of the G8 nations should be congratulated or condemned for the decisions they make. They are not qualified to do so, and I fear that they will sell us down the river.

While he is likely the highest profile writer to voice these concerns (he was quoted during Bono’s Meet The Press appearance last weekend), Monbiot is far from alone in these concerns, both with regards to Bob and Bono, and more generally.

During the IMF and World Bank meetings in Prague in 2000, Vaclav Havel facilitated a meeting between key figures from a number of NGOs and significant leaders from those organisations and the governments they work with. While this was an unprecedented opportunity to open dialogue, the decision of several luminaries from the NGO world to attend the meeting was deeply controversial on the streets.

Many of those protesting raised serious concerns that such a meeting lent legitimacy to the IMF and World Bank while, as Joseph Stiglitz would later detail in his “Globalization and its discontents,” they had both taken on themselves a mandate vastly in excess of that agreed at the Breton Woods conference in 1944 at which they were founded.

Being any sort of diplomat is an exercise in trade-offs, and that is where Bono and Bob find themselves. In this interview with Bono, Madeleine Bunting discovered that much of the star’s strategy in trying to win the US around to debt relief came from advice from (legendary stock market investor) Warren Buffett:

Earlier this week he told the Guardian in Cologne how advice from Buffett, reportedly the second richest man in America, had shaped his strategy: “Warren Buffett told me, ‘Don’t appeal to the conscience of America, appeal to its greatness, and I think you’ll get the job done’.”

It is likely that belief that has led to a reluctance to criticise the administration: an exercise that must take enormous restraint. It is also likely a dangerous strategy if taken alone.

There has been steady progress in attracting broad support for debt cancellation strategies and increases in aid budgets, through the increasingly high-profile, (and very moderate) One campaign. But the US administration has so far given little ground on crucial issues of conditionality (even while the UK government appears willing to reassess current conditionality) and climate change. Report after report demonstrates that the poor are going to be the first, and hardest hit by shifts in the global climate as a result of man-made factors, but the issue remains too controversial to touch in many circles. So too does the issue that a group of nations, one that no longer even represents those with the biggest economies, continues to dictate policy for the world. The G8 has no mandate, but it’s hard to know how to address those power politics while still making a difference to the situation of the poor.

For a while, Thom Yorke of Radiohead provided a useful counterpart to Bono on the global campaigning stage. While Bono joked with the powerful, Yorke condemned their self-serving policies and the increasing power of undemocratic bodies like the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. But Yorke eschewed the limelight and doesn’t have the global profile of Bono. We need someone with the presence and popularity of Bono who can play bad-cop to his good. Maybe a balance would help us to make more headway on the deeper issues.

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7 comments

  1. I had been wondering where Radiohead were in all this, actually…

  2. I’m not sure condemnation of the wealthy will achieve much of anything in this area. It certainly makes all of us poorer folk feel better about ourselves but it doesn’t make the wealthy want to give more money (or forgive debts) to the poor.

    I’ve been a middle class guy among rich people most of my life. The wealthy are in general so sure of the fact that they deserve their wealth that condemnation of them falls on deaf ears.

    There is nothing wrong with playing the system to the best of your abilities. That is what Bono is doing in my eyes.

  3. On a Live8 theme, you might appreciate today’s ‘Thought for the Day’ by Rhidian Brook. The text is available at:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thought/documents/t20050702.shtml

    and a Real Audio stream at:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/realmedia/thought/t20050702.ram

    Very clever.

  4. I have been looking a little at the general options that are available when thinking about world economics. You can go with the general liberal economic model, go with the reformists or go with the radicals. It seems that all of them have problems with their approach. I guess that Monbiot would fall in with the radical elements of this, those that want a complete change of system.

    The thing is that the reformists (like Bono etc.) might well be on the same journey to a different system, with only a different approach. I have to say that I am a little more inclined to go with the reformists because they appeal more to reason, compassion and morality. The radical element, to me, tends to come across as a threat, an attitude of wanting the power to do things their way. If that is their attitude I think it is very dangerous. Maybe there is space to go on a journey with the enemy, hoping that we can come out as one at the end.

    I think that Bono is trying to introduce new values into the discourse of economics – kind of like adding poison to a drink? You can ignore the fact that you have been poisoned and die – or go get something for healing. It’s more subtle than a stabbing where death is not a choice and where violence is the catalyst.

    Maybe the reformists could be more radical. I also think that some of the radicals should be more open to reform – moreover the two could see themselves two aspects of the same battle and go forward using each other. Maybe even using the die hard liberal economist

  5. Jamie – I guess my use of ‘bad cop’ may have been a bit misleading. I think that the critique I want to see brought to bear goes a bit deeper than ‘condemnation of the wealthy.’

    The G8 is a self-selected group who have no real mandate for the power they have to impose policy on the world. What Monbiot is arguing, and where I’d agree with him, is that that imperialist power structure needs to be called out for what it is. It’s not just a case of saying “you’re rich, give more” but is more a case of saying “let the poor have a say in decisions that affect them.”

    Trevor – I suspect you’re right that the destination is similar but taking a different route, and while I have been very impressed with a lot of what I’ve heard from Monbiot, I share a number of your concerns. But I did think it a shame that no-one involved with Live8 seemed to be adding a preface like: “It’s not right that these 8 men run the world, but since they do…” to their statements.

  6. That makes sense.

    However, I think my view (Not quite the word I’m looking for but it will have to do) of those in power may be a little different than yours. Mainly because I only really understand the US side of things.

    The power structure in the US is very much an old boy system. The old families have their power but so do the new people who get it by entering that old boy system themselves by going to the right schools, joining the right fraternities, and thus getting to know the right people. There is a reason a large percentage of the CIA all went to Stanford and where in the same fraternity (The CIA being an easy example). At least in America I don’t think Bush really does run the country. I don’t think he is the only one making decisions.

    It is easy to pick him out the group because of his current position and his seemingly complete lack of thought about those who view things differently. But just because he is visible doesn’t mean he is the actual source of the power.

    If you change Bush’s mind you just change the mind of one person who’s moment in the limelight is soon over and who isn’t even the only one really making decisions anyway.

    I don’t mean this in a conspiracy theory way. I mean this in a powerful people want to stay in power and changing the minds of a few of them isn’t likely to do much kind of way.

    I think I should stop now before I sound like a nut more than I already do. 🙂 I guess I just don’t see much point for even hoping.

  7. I’d be amoungst the first to grump, and be concerned at how much chummyness there was between some high profile media-campaigners and the political leaders. But we do need some people who’re willing to compromise themselves by getting close, and brushing up to them – biting back thier deeper and fiercer opinions when need be – in order to gently push the issues in thier faces. Perhaps we should be grateful for those who will eschew the option of beating from outside – even as the marginal prophetic voice might be more critically realistic.