How Bob Geldof De-Contextualizes African Hunger

by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

Amidst all the hype and hoopla generated by the Live 8 concert last month, it is necessary to raise some critical questions and propose some criticisms. The organizer of the event, Irish rock star Bob Geldof, has received more attention from the media than all other individuals and institutions dedicated to combating hunger in Africa and the rest of the world. Anyone would think that Mr. Geldof is lthe only person in the world who has made a real effort to combat hunger in Africa. It may be necessary for the organizations of civil society that have attended to the problem of hunger –AND ITS CAUSES–especially in Africa, to draw up an open letter to Mr. Geldof raising a few points.

A little background is in order: In 1984, Geldof took the initiative to do something about the tragedy of Africa, and brought together several of pop music’s most renowned personalities to form an ad hoc group called Band Aid, with the purpose of raising funds. It is to the credit of the Irish musician that he aspires to advance a just cause, although he is not the first rock’n’roller to follow his ideals. In the past decades, there have been many interpreters of popular music who have assumed much more controversial and less popular postures, and received in turn fewer elegies than Geldof, and much repudiation and abuse from reactionary sectors. Victor Jara comes to mind, but there are many others.

Fame breeds imitation, and Band Aid was not an exception. It was followed by initiatives in the same style, like USA for Africa, Comic Relief, Farm Aid and the Live Aid concert in 1985, organized by Geldof himself. But the point of view of this enterprise was totally ignorant. There was never an effort to uncover the causes of hunger. Viewing the propaganda of these efforts, one could imagine that people die of hunger in Africa for no particular reason.

On occasion, the tragedy is attributed to drought or other natural disasters–a convenient and apolitical pseudo-explanation which leaves us asking why natural disasters are really worse in Africa than other parts of the world.

Twenty years later, Geldof is a much more worldly man. The Live 8 concert included an effort to identify the causes of hunger and an unequivocal demand to the leaders of the G8 to do something in that respect. Among the demands was cancellation Africa’s foreign debt, and for a fair trade policy.

It is simply immoral to discuss how to pull Africa out of poverty without demanding the cancellation of the oppressive foreign debt. Geldof did support cancellation of the debt–but under the deal worked out at the G8 summit in Edinburgh, in exchange for this the African nations must accept the economic recipes of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF): neoliberal measures and open markets. That is to say, changing one form of slavery for another. Does Geldof justify this? He needs to clarify his position.

How can the organizers of Live 8 advocate the cancellation of the debt if they don’t name names? The principal institutions responsible for the strangling and unpayable debt have names and addresses: the World Bank and the IMF, the so-called Bretton Woods institutions. A decade ago, activists across the world united to form the 50 Years in Enough coalition to take advantage of the festivities marking the fiftieth anniversary of these two institutions, to tell the world that their policies and bad loans have been a total disaster for the countries of the South, and especially for the poor. Did Geldof support this coalition? Has he ever issued a declaration critical of the Bretton Woods institutions? Has he ever assisted in any of the numerous and multitudinous protests against the World Bank and IMF in the past 15 years?

FAIR TRADE. Geldof and company also called for fair trade for Africa. But they should make clear exactly what they mean by this. It is certain that agricultural protectionism and export subsidies (dumping) by the rich countries has been a mortal blow to the economy and food security of Africa and all the South. The further opening of the markets of the North to products from the South will not change North-South relations in any essential way. Wore still, it could only reinforce the role of the South as provider of cheap raw materials.

And the dumping of the vast agricultural surpluses of the European Union and the United States has been a virtual massacre for agriculture in the South, especially the small producers which are the vertebrate column of rural communities and the most promising sector for ecological production and food sovereignty. Geldof and his cohorts should make clear their position on this macabre trade practice. And spare us the argument that you favor the end of agricultural subsidies in the North and South equally. Because it is truly barbaric to equate the two, and it is a simplistic Manicheanism to allege that all agricultural subsidies are evil.

And on the subject of food exports, one wonders if Geldof has ever said anything about how food aid has been and is being used as a weapon of coercion against the poor countries, how this has often pulverized local productions, and how the United States is using to find captive markets of last resort for genetically engineered (GE) grain that nobody wants.

And what does Geldof think about GE grain? Certainly someone such as himself, who has been so long occupied with the problem of hunger, has to have heard the siren songs of companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. How is it possible that he has never expressed himself on an issue that has sparked such heated controversy? Had he ever sought the expertise of Tewolde Egziabher, Ethiopia’s official spokesman in matters of biodiversity and biosafety, or some of the other African farmers and organizations that unequivocally oppose GE crops?

It is not possible to speak of GE crops and world hunger without taking on the agroindustrial model of the Green Revolution. In all the grassroots forums which have addressed the problem of hunger from a political and ecological perspective, there has been an energetic condemnation of this model as inherently anti-ecological and socially retrograde. What does Geldof think of the Green Revolution?

Nor can we speak of the hazards of GE crops and industrial agriculture without speaking of intellectual property rights. If Geldof is as worldly as he appears, he must be aware that in Africa millions of people are suffering unnecessarily from the dire consequences of the HIV virus because they don’t have access to medicines that could save their lives. He should know that when the South African government proposed to make generic versions of these medicines, the pharmaceutical transnationals protested, claiming this would be piracy, unauthorized reproduction of patented products. The pharmaceutical companies, that own the patents to these medicines, insist that the famished of African must pay market price, even if they die. If he is so moved by the agony of Africans, has he ever said anything about these medical patents?

And what of patents on seeds, an issue with very obvious and serious implications for world food security?

And turning to positive proposals, did Live 8 say anything about the concept of food sovereignty? What about agrarian reform?

Well, better to leave it here. What irritates is that initiatives like Live 8 ignore the efforts–many far more serious and substantive–of numerous individuals and organizations that also fight the hunger, but do not fear to call the things by their name, that do not aspire to be become figures of show business, and that do not hesitate to tackle controversial and unpleasant matters. In the course of one week, Geldof and Live 8 have received more fame and publicity than a lot more deserving agencies as Via Campesina and the World Social Forum. For this reason, it may be opportune for these groups to release an open letter while the hoopla occasioned by Live 8 persists.

I will close with the wise words of the Argentine agronomist Jorge E. Rulli of Grupo de Reflexión Rural:

“No queremos que nos ayuden. Con que nos saquen las manos de encima es suficiente.”

We do not want their help. It is sufficient that they take their hands off us.


Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is director of the Proyecto de Bioseguridad Puerto Rico, a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology and a senior fellow at the Environmental Leadership Program. His blog is online at:


50 Years is Enough

World Social Forum

Via Campesina

Grupo de Reflexión Rural

“Food Security: Not Biotech,” by Tewolde Egziabjer, International Forum on Globalization

See also WW4 REPORT’s coverage of Live 8 and the G8 summit:

Also by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero:

“US Attacks Iraqi Agriculture,” WW4 REPORT #105

Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution