Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

The rise and fall of Saint Bob

For years Bob Geldof, former Boomtown Rat turned self-styled saviour of Africa, was celebrated as a secular saint. To the annoyance of some of us — including me — he was fawned over by the world media and world leaders, who loved the gruff, messy-haired, expletive-laden “authenticity” he apparently brought to the discussion about global poverty. Widely referred to as “Sir Bob” (he was knighted by the Queen after Live Aid in 1985) and even “Saint Bob”, Geldof could do no wrong in the eyes of those who, more than 70 years after Kipling kicked the bucket, still think Africa needs a white man to save it from itself.

Oh how the mighty have fallen! Today Geldof is a figure of ridicule. Like a modern-day Lucifer, the former angel of Africa is now widely looked upon as a devilish self-promoter and narcissist, whose interventions in the world of aid and charity have probably made African people’s lives worse. A BBC documentary shown last month claimed that much of the “focking money” raised through Geldof’s Live Aid concerts was diverted to fund rebel military operations in northern Ethiopia, and a documentary aired on British TV last night — Starsuckers by Chris Atkins — featured interviews with the heads of aid organisations who brand Geldof “arrogant” and accuse him of “undoing” their good work.

So, is this a good thing, the fact that Geldof is finally being toppled from his self-made throne as the tousle-haired king of starving African babies? Not quite. In fact, the only thing madder than the old idea that Geldof could have single-handedly saved Africa by organising a few concerts featuring Bono and other twits prancing around in stacked shoes while warbling their pseudo-World Music nonsense is the idea that Geldof single-handedly ruined Africa with his various daft initiatives. If it was dumb to elevate Geldof to the position of unofficial spokesman for skinny Africans, it’s even dumber to brand him the destroyer of hope for Africa.

For political leaders, who increasingly struggle to make a connection with their publics, and the media, which has an unhealthy appetite for poverty porn, the attraction of Geldof was always that he was a maverick, a doer rather than a thinker, whose quickly thought-up campaigns — from Live Aid in 1985 to Live 8 in 2005 — provided politicians with an opportunity to shoulder-rub with rock stars and look caring at the same time and gave the media yet another opportunity to publish photographs of emaciated foreigners. This is also what riled Geldof’s then small number of critics, which included me. Some of us argued that the depiction of Geldof as Africa’s “messiah” both rehabilitated the outdated idea of the White Man’s Burden and also distracted from any serious debate about the kind of massive economic development sub-Saharan Africa really needs, and how it might go about getting it.

Yet having celebrated Geldof’s rambling, devil-may-care, individualistic globetrotting as something wonderful, many of Britain’s opinion-formers now attack him for those very same traits. In the Guardian, on the eve of the airing of Starsuckers, one of the new breed of Geldof-critics said Geldof thought that “he alone put poverty on the global agenda”. The critic also claimed that in 2005 the work of the Make Poverty History (MPH) network — which was made up of over 100 organisations — was overshadowed by Geldof’s largely self-serving, attention-seeking Live 8 concerts, to the extent that MPH’s serious “challenge to the G8” was “completely subsumed in the glitz and glamour of a pop event”.

This criticism smacks of way too little, way too late. You can’t applaud or nod along or implicitly accept the 20-year process by which Geldof was canonised as “Mr Africa” and then feign shock’n’horror when the consequences of that canonisation — Geldof behaves arrogantly and poor Africans become the playthings of rich, narcissistic Westerners — become more pronounced. Today’s increasingly intemperate attacks on Geldof look like a desperate attempt to make amends for the thoughtless elevation of “celebrity saviours” by the mainstream media, charities and politicians over the past two decades.

Even worse, the new demonisation of Geldof is serving as a distraction from seriously investigating and critiquing the work of mainstream charities in relation to sub-Saharan Africa. One of my big bugbears about Geldof was always his spectacularly low horizons for poor Africa. Yet many of the charity officials currently making headlines because they have dared to (20 years too late) criticise Saint Bob also patronisingly believe that tiny, incremental increases in people’s living standards — rather than real and meaningful development — is all that the poverty-stricken parts of Africa really need.

Consider Make Poverty History. One of its senior executives – John Hilary – has made waves this week by slamming Geldof for undermining MPH’s campaign to “tackle issues of trade justice, corporate accountability and debt relief”. Hilary seems especially annoyed by the fact that in 2005 Geldof decided to hold the Live 8 concerts on the same day that MPH planned to march through Edinburgh to demand that the G8 nations – who were meeting in Scotland – should get serious about eradicating global poverty. Yet only a mad man would believe that Geldof is the devil in the debate about African poverty while MPH is the pure and untainted god.

MPH’s campaigning, like Geldof’s, was also narrow-minded, short-sighted and obsessed with the power of celebs to encourage world leaders to “save” the wretched of the Earth. MPH’s main aim was to get world leaders to push through the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. These include cutting by half the proportion of people living on less than one dollar a day by 2015, and also cutting by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. By the UN’s own admission, the achievement of these goals would not actually “make poverty history”, but they would “bring us much closer to the day when we can say that all the world’s people have at least the bare minimum to eat and clothe themselves”.

That is fundamentally what MPH was fighting for. Not real economic growth, not industrialisation, not the expansion of material wealth and equality across the globe, but rather a world in which 50% more poor people – not all of them – would have just about enough food to put in their bellies and a blanket or two to cover their backs. And it got Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Will Smith and other super-famous people to front this low-horizons campaign, which was just as much about exploiting “glitz and glamour” to promote a patronising message about Africa as was Geldof’s Live 8.

I don’t hold a candle for Geldof. He deserves a great deal of criticism. But I also don’t care very much for the transformation of Geldof into a voodoo doll by various commentators and charity heads, which looks to me like an attempt to hold Geldof single-handedly responsible for the “celebrification” and dumbing down of the serious issues of hunger and poverty. In truth, numerous politicians, opinion-formers, aid organisations and apparently edgy charities have helped to turn poor Africa into a platform for self-serving moral poseurs from the West – and elbowing Geldof off that platform won’t make everything better.

  • La Quebecoise

    My eldest daughter calls them ‘show busybodies’. No one has The Answer to African poverty and sub-development, nothing has worked anywhere. The incremental growth that the rest of the so-called Developed World endured on the climb to some level of prosperity, neither exists nor is valued in Africa. It seems to be “I want it all and I want it NOW”. I’ve lived and worked in 7 Africaqn countries since 1968 and I have seen NO Progress anywhere. I have no idea what the solution could possibly be.

  • Dave Harris

    “…which was just as much about exploiting “glitz and glamour” to promote a patronising message about Africa..”
    Spoken like a true rabid conservative, who would like to wish Africa away! What you call exploitation and patronization of Africa, other would called raising awareness to the continued EXPLOITATION of African resources by necons like you and your business partners and the corporations that pay you to spew this drivel.

    All you have to do to understand your hypocrisy and denialism is ask yourself the question – what have you PERSONALLY done lately to eradicate poverty? We’re waiting to hear…

  • Johan Meyer

    Thanks – charity is at best an emergency measure, and cannot solve structural problems.

    So let’s have a look at some of the structural problems:
    1. Many African countries now have undergraduate universities (often with limited resources, but a huge improvement over independence, when one could often count the university-educated citizens on one hand), but only a few have universities that can hand out accredited PhDs – and those often have limited resources (although the pan-African university initiatives, mainly by Africans in the West, look promising).
    2. Food dependence on the west, often by design (see e.g. Michael Hudson’s Superimperialism, and references therein). The western food production relies heavily on fossil fuels, both for machinery, and to produce fertilisers. One potential solution that deserves experimentation (and the shack-dwellers’ movement abahlali basemjondolo was involved in this) is to have unemployed people in cities produce their own food – and this ties into sanitation and fertilizers through composting – see the Humanure Handbook.
    3. Industrialization – in the face of Chinese competition, and seeing as economic protective measures will likely not be implemented, African states would do well to pool their industrial resources for their own military production, leaving foreign exchange to pay off foreign currency denominated debts. Moreover, with limited crash-course industrialization to locally refine rare minerals (e.g. Coltan), it may become possible to pay such debts in full without too large-scale disruption. Henry CK Liu suggests research programs for economists in poorer countries.

  • Siobhan

    I haven’t followed Geldof’s career or measured the success of his ‘philanthropic’ efforts to improve life for the poorest Africans. I do recall thinking how incredibly naive he was at the beginning of his ‘campaign’. Several years later he gave an interview which suggested that he had learned a lesson. He had come around to the point of view that micro-economic empowerment was the only way to direct money where it would do the greatest good: in the female population of the continent. His reason was his discovery of just how corrupt the existing governments of the continent were and are. Geldof then made the aid money conditional on major improvements in governance, transparency and accountability. This was not a popular move.

    I don’t know if he has a huge ego, was ‘grandstanding’ or ‘playing to the stalls’. He tried something, learned from his naivete and perhaps even discovered unconscious racism (in terms of ‘aiming too low’).

    If we don’t demand that African governments account publicly for every centime of aid money they receive. we have only ourselves to blame for the rampant corruption. Nothing improves unless people–all over the world–are held to account for their performance. Why should Africa be any different?

  • Atlas Reader

    Heavenly Hiraani! What a peach of a bloke! An absolute tiger lily of working-class pomposity.

  • lyndall Beddy

    The Live Aid relief stopped 1/3 of Ethiopians dying in famine. Instead the population grew by 1/3. Now there are more people to starve next time.

  • Mark P

    Excellent piece Brendan

  • Jusuf Magombo

    Peoples’ low expectations are the problem as is the belief that it is good enough to make tiny incremental gains in the lives of the majority rural poor who are expected to show their appreciation of the kleptomaniacs who lead our nations by re-electing them, desisting from criticism and admiring their leaders’ miraculously improved financial situation – mansions, palaces, limos and the rest. Instead of nibbling at the edges, making much of food security (I write from Malawi where we have invested a huge percentage of our budget for an unsustainable fertiliser subsidy programme.)we need to redirect our efforts. Nothing will stop the emigration from overcrowded rural areas, where everyone is scratching a meagre living, to the overcrowded cities. We need our own governments to raise their peoples’ expectations so that we develop an efficient agricultural sector and invest in the cities where Africa should eventually reap the benefits of the urbanisation as experienced by the developed world. So Mr. (sorry, Sir) Geldof’s efforts have been misdirected all these years.

  • MLH

    Africa doesn”t need any help self-destructing; its own methods do it, slowly but surely. What’s more, I’m of the opinion that helping Africa to help itself is just delaying the inevitable. Africa doesn’t value Western or Eastern help; it simply uses it and will use it for as long as it is proffered. Suckers!
    In another century, Africa will still be Africa because its people are apathetic about state fraud, corruption and lack of service delivery.
    Ask why every sub-Saharan African country has an infrastructure problem? Maintenance was never on the agenda…

  • Alan Egner

    I heard an interview with Sir Bob on BBC radio, where he piled into the editor of the documentary you mention. He was quite upset and challenged everything that was claimed about the diversion of aid to rebels. I have to say, I was left with the feeling that the BBC story was a pack of half-truths and speculation. Sir Bob can defend himself quite vigourously when he chooses to.

  • Aragorn23

    Well said Dave! Brendan’s calls for industrialization strike me as entirely ridiculous in the current climate (pun intended).

  • Robin

    The process of truly helping any people in any a position of need, whether due to colonialism, natural disaster, or even that nation’s politicians is at once both much more complex and much simpler than most people think. It is of course also much simpler, and less personally challenging to criticise someone else’s efforts in this regard, than it is to do something ourselves.

    I think that the first rule of criticism, especially in this arena, should be that the the critic must be personally involved. Maybe ‘Sir Bob’ didn’t do it all right, maybe money did end up in the wrong hands. Maybe Bono does get on many people’s nerves, and maybe it does seem like either or both of them are portrayed as the ‘saviours’ of the down-trodden and poverty-stricken.

    However, here’s the thing. If there were more, countless more people taking action, in ways both similar and dissimilar to these ‘icons’, that would firstly help hugely to solve said problems, and secondly, it would mean that people such as Bono & Sir Bob would automatically no longer be iconic, but merely part of the helpful masses. In fact, I would guess that if you asked either one of them, they would prefer this latter scenario too.

  • Jenni

    I recon Bob is a well meaning man who simply lacks an adequate overview. Africa accepts all the assistance it can get, and while it does so it paves the way for people like Geldof.
    For a really eye opening take on what AID does to Africa read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo.
    Puts it all into a different perspective.

  • brent

    I am no Geldof fan but he DID something. The money he raised was stolen by politicians/thugs and it is his fault. If only one starving kid was helped by Bob it is one more than most others in the West helped!!!!

    Just love spolit brat John Hilary stamping his feet and hissing his anger at being upstaged by that non liberal pop brat, took all his thunder away. To hell with starving African kids what about my place in the world spotlight.

    Dave Harris – “All you have to do to understand your hypocrisy and denialism is ask yourself the question – what have you PERSONALLY done lately to eradicate poverty? We’re waiting to hear… ”

    WE ARE ALSO WAITING to hear from you Mr Perfect, leading negative blogger in SA please detail what you have done to eradicate poverty.


  • Kalahari Doringboom

    Dave Harris blogs while waiting for his poverty to be eradicated. Sort of like fiddling while Rome burns. So Brent, don’t expect too much.

  • andrew

    Do a search on “famine scam” – another angle on the west’s misguided and prejudiced approach to Africa.

  • richard

    Brendan. Why does your “including me” link take us to an article written by someone else?

    The gist of this piece seems to be “I criticised Geldof when the world applauded him. Now that he’s under attack I support him”.

    Usual sixth-form contrarian bullshit, then.

  • suggest

    I loathe Bono and the rest of them as musicians, but I find the carping about their charitable efforts mean-spirited. Sure, their projects are ill-advised, like most of the aid projects that the experts have proposed. But unlike the experts they are not paid for their efforts, which seem perfectly sincere. It would be nice if we stopped being idiots about poverty and aid, but Geldof is hardly the villain of the piece.

  • doubled

    “What you call exploitation and patronization of Africa, other would called raising awareness to the continued EXPLOITATION of African resources by necons like you and your business partners and the corporations that pay you to spew this drivel.”

    And how does one protect one’s resources from being exploited? With a functioning government backed with the force of a standing army. Progressives hate armies, so what to do?

    Of course, most countries in Africa have a dictator led quasi-government backed by militia type armies, but they seem to be more concerned with their cut of the ‘resource pie’ for themselves and their cronies than with developing capatalist infrastructure for their ‘constituants’.And progressives love dictators, so again, what to do?

  • r murdoch

    Its not about the cash, it’s about influence

  • Brian Mulcahy

    Historically. Geldof responded instinctively, morally and quite correctly to a piece which was aired on television – a unique broadcast on the Ethiopian famine. His intentions were sound and I think they were treated with respect by most people. The fact that he spoke with a Dublin accent -“focking money” – is beside the point, or in fact that he swore at all. What mattered, quite simply, was the he and his team raised a lot of money to alleviate poverty. And the mass media, who themselves made millions in their sideline ventures were well and truly on board. Oh, yes!

    Now Geldof has become an easy target by lazy right-wing journalists because of recent revelations. Get to the heart of the matter, man. You simply don’t know!

    Are you one of the same freeloaders who would queue up tomorrow, demanding their free pass to see Pink Floyd at Live8? Comfortably numb? I think so.

  • Fiona Gillies

    I come away from this article knowing more about Mr. O’Neill than Bob Geldof….
    “to the annoyance of some of us – (including me)”
    Mr.O’Neill has inferred by the use of “us” that he is included in this party of annoyed people,so I find it interesting that he feels the need to be certain that he has conveyed just how personally annoyed he is with Geldof…
    “deserves a great deal of criticism”… not just criticism but a great deal of it…..(sounds like nanny in the nursery)
    It seems from reading this article that Mr O’Neill has allowed his unresolved feelings of anger and resentment to attach themselves onto the public persona of Mr.Geldof. Having not read other pieces by this journalist I don’t know if his “shtick ” is to be chronically angry or Mr.Geldof is a particular “bugbear” of his….I feel it opportune to remind him that it is the very things hidden in our own natures which we despise in others.
    Mr. Geldof’s intent regarding Africa really is for none of us to criticise or judge nor do I wish to judge Mr O’Neill…but maybe there is cause to moderate his anger at such an easy target, or at least not make his own personality so visible in his journalism.

  • deci bells

    “Feed my bank let me know your a sheep who baaas”
    Donate now to the needy rock star charity.
    And soon if you raise enough money for those helpless rockers they will be able to buy a comb and a scissors and 6 mansions too.