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.