Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Josh Trevino: Do They Know it's Malawi Independence Day?

Liveblogging from the Live 8 spectacle:
The premise of Live 8 -- that "doubling aid, fully cancelling debt, and delivering trade justice" for Africa is not merely a good, but essential thing -- has, by contrast, gone almost completely unexamined. This is, in part, because it seems like a self-evident proposition; and it is, in part, because to delve too deeply into the rectitude of the participants is seen as uncharitable and cynical. Particularly when, scalpers notwithstanding, most who enjoy these events will do so for free, it seems ungracious to critique them or its organizers overmuch. But as in all cases when hectoring figures -- be they Geldof, George W. Bush, or a televangelist -- demand action in the name of your conscience, some small examination is in order...
It is instructive to look back twenty years to Live Aid, Geldof's original bright idea for mass mobilization in Africa's service. That concert was meant to focus attention upon, and bring donations to, the cause of Ethiopian famine relief. In this, it was an immense success: but where it failed was in its assiduous avoidance of the very causes of the famine in question. It is not enough to say that we now know that the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s was a classic terror famine purposefully perpetrated by Haile Mengistu Mariam's communist regime; this much was known then. Mengistu's forced resettlements, population transfers, and manipulation of food stocks was in the long communist tradition of genocide by starvation, and would be instantly familiar to its past masters Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. All the aid in the world, in the absence of a change in a government policy explicitly meant to inflict such suffering, had the moral quality of a care package to Auschwitz.
This is not to accuse Geldof of being anything less than sincere or well-meaning. He is unquestionably both, and those of us who have not organized globe-spanning humanitarian relief efforts ought to give him his due. But we, as the objects of his appeal, can certainly question its wisdom before parting with our cash -- or, in the case of the all-free Live 8 events, our moral voice. Ethiopia today is still prone to famine; its peoples are still forbidden to own land; and the successor regime of Meles Zenawi has proven itself bloody-minded in its own right as it guns down demonstrators in Addis Ababa and pursues a little-known genocide in the Gambella region. We cannot say that the Live Aid money that poured into the country a generation ago was therefore entirely money down the drain; a life saved is a life saved, and of inestimable value in itself. This is certainly the argument that Geldof believes to be the final word. "In my opinion, we've got to give aid without worrying about population transfers," Geldof told the Irish Times on 4 November 1985. He is wrong. Acknowledgement of having done well does not preclude wishing to do better. Nor does it confer a pass on ignoring context. Surely ending famine would have been preferable to merely feeding its victims? Surely feeding its victims is best done without aiding its perpetrators?


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