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.