Okay. I'll bite.
But first, a couple of reflections:
On a trip to Haiti that I undertook back in the year 2000 I happened to find myself on a tour of a couple community health and community health training projects alongside a nice young Christian couple from Michigan. They were Packer fans, proud Cheeseheads (a compliment for those of you who don't know) and very kind to me. Later that afternoon in Cap Haitien we were all standing around at a 'demonstration' of some kind for an educational project for community health workers from rural Haiti when, after listening to the Haitians and their instructor explain to us what they were learning and their goals for their projects, and their hope that 'we would return', our 'host' for the day asked if there was anything that we would like to say to the Haitians. Me being quite a shy person, I don't really remember saying anything, and thus I think it was left to the 'husband' of this couple from Michigan to speak for us all. He thanked the Haitians for their time and their dedication, and he wished them good luck. And then he said that one of the reasons that he and his wife had come down to the country was to receive the 'blessing' of the Haitian people. The Haitians themselves were very generous to him in this, but it was a moment that I have to say, made me quite uncomfortable. And later on I wondered why, and I think I am still wondering. But, strangely, after it happened I couldn't help but think of those lines from the U2 song 'One':
"Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus?
To the lepers in your head?"
And for the rest of the day it was as if I couldn't get this bloody song out of my head. Good pop music is like that. But in this case I wasn't sure if it was providing clarity, or just more confusion.
At other times during this same trip, I found myself taking out my video camera and filming, without their permission, regular workaday Haitians as they went about their business. I filmed a a fisherman hauling in his net close to shore in the port of Cap Haitien, and I filmed some Haitian women as they did their laundry beside a river. And on both occasions I think I can characterize their reactions as (and as related to me by my host): Yo blanc. How about some money? You didn't ask our permission, and its not like we're giving this shit away. And in both instances, embarrassed, I just stopped filming. I thought about how I would react to somebody pointing a video camera at me where I live while I went about my business. And while I don't think I would ask for money I would most certainly be annoyed and wish and hope that they would stop. And if I didn't just ignore I might even ask them politely to stop. I might not even be so polite. On this trip, eventually, I just put my camera down unless I had permission to film, tried not to cause any problems, and just listen.
My other reflection has to do with, believe it or not, a Canadian television show. I seem to remember a scene from an episode of what I believe was the show More Tears, by Ken Finkleman, where a television reporter (played by the luminous Leah Pinsent) was interviewing a woman from Africa who was now living in Canada. The Leah Pinsent character kept asking her and wanting to know about her struggle - how hard was it to get food, how far she had to walk to get water, was she a refugee, the wars, etc. The African woman would patiently explain that she was University educated, spoke several languages, her father was a doctor, and she was now living in Toronto selling real estate and having a fine, fairly uneventful life. But the Leah Pinsent character never got it. She just seemed perplexed, and kept on asking her same basic questions. (something like that) Finkleman's point, I think, (and if I may be so bold) was always that television, particularly television news of the commercial, corporate variety, (though the fictional station of the the show was basically a stand-in for the CBC) while being totally ubiquitous was only capable of so much,in that it had maybe five or six narratives into which it had to fit everything and that was it. Everywhere, overwhelming even, and yet so limited. Moreover, it was almost impossible for it to see this in itself. Hence, I think, its devastating rich potential for satire and self-parody and one of the reasons why there are so many TV shows about making TV shows; and many of them devstatingly hilarious.
All of which brings me, in a very round about manner, to a William Easterly column that I read this morning from the LaTimes, via Antiwar.com. This is right in the wheelhouse, so to speak, of what this blog is supposed to be about, so I might as well address it.
Now as I have pointed out, I have a lot of respect for the challenging nature of Easterly's book, The White Man's Burden, and while I find this column a bit glib and slightly disingenuous, it does, along with this Vanity Fair business, provide us with occasion to examine our present pop-cultural phenomenon/moment of Western Celebrity and Africa.
JUST WHEN IT SEEMED that Western images of Africa could not get any weirder, the July 2007 special Africa issue of Vanity Fair was published, complete with a feature article on Madonna's Malawi. At the same time, the memoirs of an African child soldier are on sale at your local Starbucks, and celebrity activist Bob Geldof is touring Africa yet again, followed by TV cameras, to document that "War, Famine, Plague & Death are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and these days they're riding hard through the back roads of Africa."
It's a dark and scary picture of a helpless, backward continent that's being offered up to TV watchers and coffee drinkers. But in fact, the real Africa is quite a bit different. And the problem with all this Western stereotyping is that it manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of some current victories, fueling support for patronizing Western policies designed to rescue the allegedly helpless African people while often discouraging those policies that might actually help.
Let's begin with those rampaging Four Horsemen. Do they really explain Africa today? What percentage of the African population would you say dies in war every year? What share of male children, age 10 to 17, are child soldiers? How many Africans are afflicted by famine or died of AIDS last year or are living as refugees?
In each case, the answer is one-half of 1% of the population or less. In some cases it's much less; for example, annual war deaths have averaged 1 out of every 10,800 Africans for the last four decades. That doesn't lessen the tragedy, of course, of those who are such victims, and maybe there are things the West can do to help them. But the typical African is a long way from being a starving, AIDS-stricken refugee at the mercy of child soldiers. The reality is that many more Africans need latrines than need Western peacekeepers — but that doesn't play so well on TV."
Well lets get on that latrine story then! Easterly is probably right about much. That shit doesn't play well on TV or even in Vanity Fair for that matter.
But seriously, Easterly is making a legitimate point here, and I know he is, so lets break it down:
Is there a danger here that an overreporting and emphasis within the Western MSM on a variety and succession of bad news stories coming out of Africa is creating a kind of media generated version of Dutch Disease, and thus enhancing and reinforcing a plethora of stereotypes within the relatively Africa-inexperienced mind of your average Western news consumer? Which in turn leaves this stark impression that Easterly suggests of an "AIDS-stricken refugee at the mercy of child soldiers'? I suppose its a danger, and it definitely goes on, but its also pretty much business as usual. What's the old saying - if wasn't for bad news there would no news at all? Well of course it goes without saying that there is all kinds of news, good and otherwise in Africa, like anywhere else. But I also think that for many reasons there is a lot of under or nonreporting that goes on (Congo?) which in turn creates an absence that is equally profound. And of course the lack of African voices telling and explaining African stories, realities and experiences within the Western media is frustrating. It would be wonderful if all the commentary, reporting and analysis were on the level of say - Ken Wiwa, or the gifted" ahref="http://www.sorioussamurasafrica.org/about.htm">Sorious Samura:
But its not.
And I feel Easterly's pain on this score. There is nothing more tiresome, and given the context more limited, than the image of the poor African child suffering in front for the cameras, clutched to the bosom of the bold earnest Western celebrity. But this is done for the obvious reason - because that is what the media will cover. If Princess Di goes to an Angolan minefield, or George Clooney to the U.N. Coverage. No celebrity, no coverage. And coverage, so goes the calculaltion, will equal action, and or money. Everybody knows this, and everybody plays their part. But just to criticize this on its own can also become tiresome. I mean, they say that over 200 000 people have died thus far in the crisis in Darfur But did you check out this recent action at a George Clooney fundraiser for refugees at that same crisis at the recent Cannes Film Festival!:
(affect Entertainment Tonight reporter voice - now):
Everybody looks fantastic! And not a refugee, nor a Janjaweed in sight. And Kylie Minogue and Sharon actually singing together!? Fuck me! I heard that (cancer survivor) Kylie didn't even know she was going to have to perform but when she did raised a 100 000 pounds! And George Clooney apparently gave away that kiss for like ten thousand dollars! (bargain).
Yes. I am being facetious here. But it is, I hope, a facetiousisty with a point.
(And besides, I could have just as easily shown this:
but its kind of a downer.)
And that point is that it is no great intellectual stretch to mock celebrities and their political activism. In so many ways its just the easiest thing you can do. The technique: just dress up the strawiest of straw men in the clothes of this alliance of whatever cause with whatever Liberal (oh dear god yes) Hollywood/music celebrity and then - (oh my goodness - the dichotomy! the hypocrisy!)- proceed to bash away in the most self-satisfied manner as if this constituted thought and/or insight into the issue at hand, rather than its substitute. Nobody ever misses any meals engaging in this stuff, and there are some, many, who have developed entire careers doing just this.
(Incidentally, in case you haven't heard, there is an imminent clash brewing in CelebrityLand over this very issue whereby some activists, particularly Mia Farrow, are now pressuring Stephen Speilberg to quite his post as an artistic advisor to the Bejiing Olympics, as a way to get the Chinese government to pressure the Sudanese government to in turn do something to bring about the end the 'genocide' in Darfur. China now being heavily invested in Sudan; as well as in the rest Africa Stay tuned.)
However, I will concede that when it comes to this present alliance of Western celebrities and Foreign Aid, particularly with regards to Africa, the impulse is probably pretty irresisitable. It is all just all so naturally ripe for parody. And when done in an intelligent manner it can rise to the level of true satire which can really show us something about our present historical moment and contemporary world; inherently political, This alliance representing, in a way, two very profound solitudes in and of our world: The billions of poor masses, yearning to be free in the shadow of this neurotic, fatuous veneer of a celebrity-obsessed ubiquitous corporate media. Some people travel the world as a glam tourists, while others flee their homelands as desperate vagabonds and refugees. And we mock and make fun of everything now. And even the celebrities who feel most passionately about all this stuff can't resist the urge to take the piss out of themselves:
Its a badge of sophistication.
Celebrities who engage in this behaviour, as they always tell say, make a choice. They find themselves in this Bizarro World and System of celebrity obsession and fixation which has helped make them rich and famous and so they decide to redirect all of that or make it work for them and for their cause, knowing the that the story will for the most part remain about them and their lives, but hoping, I suppose, that something, anything might rub off in the process. Who can forget that when Brad and Angelina first got together Brad did agree to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer, (why always Diane Sawyer?) provided that Diane came with him to Ethiopia to do it:
Favourite quote: "I can't get out of the press. These people can't get into the press.". Thats fantastic. And he looks - fantastic! Did he come up with that himself, because that sounds an awful lot like a speechwriter to me. But hey, what do I know. Say and think what you want about Brad Pitt I don't think you could honestly say that he is a bad actor, great in Seven - and hes probably smarter than we'd like to think. (The guy is helping design and build green housing in New Orleans) And he could probably be doing pretty much anything he wanted with his life at this point and he is choosing to do this. I suppose he could just disappear. Or I suppose if he wanted he could take it to this level:
Would that be more helpful? I'm not sure. Probably. But I seriously doubt that's going to happen.
Is there a danger here, as Easterly suggests, that some celebrities are engaging in these type of activities in order to help turn around their sagging careers? ( Gasp. No! Please say it isn't so. Maybe Geldoff, but U2, Madonna, Brad and Angelina - sagging?) Again - of course. But then again, these days, I don't think anybody really expects otherwise. Is this really so shocking? Its all part of the larger trade off. Many, if not most, of these organizations/causes (African/developmental) are so overwhelmed, underfunded and ignored, that they will take any attention and/or money they can get?
The difference is I suppose, as John Doyle recently pointed out, between 'posturing' and really meaning and doing something, hopefully over the long term.
Of course its absurd that Madonna is adopting a Malawian orphan. (Though I have always wondered why she didn't adopt an actual orphan, as opposed to kid who apparently still has a father) And it comes with the requisite amounts of media glare and real and imagined hypocrisy that accompanies any and everything that Madonna does. But it does appear she is attempting, at least at this point, to give something back to other Malawian orphans (1 Million in a country of 13 million) in some kind of sustainable manner. I haven't done anything for Malawian orphans. And possibly, probably never will. But then again, shes got a lot more money than me.
But what of Easterly's larger suggestion - that these kind "PR Extravaganzas" not only end up hurting more than they help, but just hurt in general? Can this be qualified? Quantified?
In her many, excellent articles for The New York Review of Books on the African AIDS crisis, and now in her new book The Invisible Cure, Helen Epstein has been very dogged in her pursuit of answers to the question of whether or not Western efforts in aid of the crisis are in fact assisting the cause in a meaningful way beyond what (some) African countires (most notably Uganda) were not already doing for themselves. And the ways in which it is hindering. (Highly recommended. And I certainly plan to blog more extensively about all her writing in the future.)
Daniel Wolfe is a British writer and television producer who produced an apparently highly contentious television documentary series for Channel 4 in the U.K. a few years back (I never saw it) that was notorious in the manner in which challenged much of the conventional wisdom around overseas foregin and food aid. And in this article in the conservative British magazine The Spectator (formerly owned by Conrad Black), writing about Bob Geldof, Ethiopia and the legacy of the godfather of celebrity "PR extravaganzas" - Live Aid, he very much continued that approach. And in the interest of thought and heat, I think will go ahead reprint much of it here:
A pale, intense young man with a soft Irish accent and a mane of dark hair is banging the glass table: ‘Don’t go to the pub tonight,’ he says, ‘there are people dying now. So please, stay in and give me the f***ing money.’
It is one of the indelible television moments. On that day — 13 July 1985 — Bob Geldof laced together rock music, live television and the extremes of human misery into a single, potent brew, inventing a new way, not just of giving, but of feeling. Live Aid initiated a global culture of direct emotional response to suffering, and a global demand for direct action to make the suffering stop. It was a great achievement. Unfortunately, the Geldof approach to humanitarian emergencies can also be a liability: it favours action in place of careful thought, gestures instead of an engagement with complex realities.
We are riding into the valley of anniversaries: next month, it will be 20 years since Geldof and Midge Ure set the ball rolling by founding Band Aid. Once again we will celebrate our remarkable generosity, once again we will hear that we ‘saved’ Ethiopia and ‘fed the world’. Earlier this month, on BBC Radio 5, Geldof laid down a preliminary barrage, saying that, in Ethiopia in 1984, ‘30 million people were about to die ...’. It is an absurd statement: the suggestion that everyone in a huge region would have died, had it not been for the emergency aid, ignores virtually everything we know about both famines and aid.
Yet, in the face of a Geldof campaign, it seems feeble to mention the facts. Why think about how to help when the only question on offer is whether? Geldof narrows the debate to one of compassion machismo: do you have the cojones to give? He promotes impatience as the greatest virtue, as typified by his recent comment, while touring Africa with Tony Blair, that a European commissioner was ‘talking through his arse’. This is the sort of simplistic shtick that plays well in our media-saturated world, yet in a number of African crises, ill-conceived emergency aid has proved of questionable value. And the event that made Geldof’s reputation is a classic illustration of this awkward, unsettling truth.
In the time of Band Aid, ‘negative angles’ were out. It would have been negative, although true, to have emphasised that Mengistu was one of the most vicious African dictators of the previous quarter century, that he was fighting three wars at the time (two in the north, in Tigray and Eritrea, and one in the Oromo lands of the south), and that his troops were committing atrocities in the region where the famine was unfolding. It would have been distinctly negative to have reported that the dictator was using food as a weapon of war — bombing crops and markets while setting up roadblocks to prevent the movement of food. The methods used by Mengistu’s armies were bound to create famine, and they did.
Journalists and aid workers were not the only ones wary of confusing viewers at home with ‘negative angles’. While it was Band Aid and, later, Live Aid that caught the imagination of the world, they funded only a small proportion of the aid effort: 90 per cent or more of the aid came from Western donor governments. As the governments would only deal with a recipient government, not with rebel movements, most of the aid — again, roughly 90 per cent — was channelled through Mengistu’s hands. In a grotesque irony, we found ourselves supporting the very government that was causing the famine we were supposed to be alleviating. This was certainly a ‘negative angle’, and therefore, unsurprisingly, it received hardly any attention at all.
Geldof was the front man, and he has played his part to perfection, then and ever since. This is not to impugn his motives: Geldof is undeniably charming and sincere, but that does not mean that what he says is holy writ. He told the international media that agencies had to trust the representatives of the Mengistu government, thus seeming to deny, by implication, that the aid operation was being used by that same government. Yet the places where the aid was distributed, and the conditions under which it was distributed, were determined by Mengistu. There is something remarkably patronising in the assumption that an African dictator — as ruthless and cunning as they come, a survivor among survivors — might fail to see an opportunity when it was staring him in the face.
As it turned out, Mengistu knew a hawk from a handsaw. In 1984–85, up to a billion dollars’ worth of aid flowed into Ethiopia. Thousands of Western aid workers and journalists flew in with it. The regime ensured that the visitors converted their Western dollars to the local currency at a rate favourable to the government: in 1985 the Dergue tripled its foreign currency reserves. It used this influx of cash to help build up its war-machine, it commandeered aid vehicles for its own purposes and, by diverting aid supplies, helped feed its armies. The UN in Addis Ababa, which was co-ordinating the aid operation, denied that the level of diversion was significant. Later on, it became clear that a significant proportion of the relief food in Tigray — the epicentre of the famine — was consigned to the militia. The militias were known locally as ‘wheat militias’.
Above all, the government used the aid operation to support its military strategy: it saw food aid as both a tool for consolidating control over disputed territory and as bait for luring people from rebel-held areas into government territory. Michael Buerk’s viewers did not realise — how could they? — that he was speaking to them from a government enclave. They did not realise — again, how could they? — that the Ethiopian government did not control much of the territory where the famine was occurring, and that a huge proportion of the famine victims, possibly more than half, were outside the reach of the international aid effort. Mengistu maintained that he could reach virtually every famine victim, and that therefore all the aid should be distributed on his side of the lines. It was nonsense, and you did not have to be unduly sceptical to trace the thread of self-interest in the claim. Yet the UN went along with it, and the great majority of aid agencies fell into line.
What happened in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s was not the glorious episode of Geldof’s promotion. Despite the efforts of many noble individuals and the expenditure of huge amounts of money, it was a badly flawed exercise. To sustain the mythology of Band Aid’s success, its supporters tell us that some neat, round number of lives were saved. Last Sunday in the Observer Michael Buerk was quoted as saying, ‘The money raised would have saved about one to two million lives.’ Numbers are easy to bandy around (even ones with a 100 per cent margin of error) but it is surprisingly hard to determine how many lives the aid saved.
While the agencies certainly fed large numbers of starving people, equally large numbers of the starving were out of their reach, and had to save themselves. There was little counting of those they did feed. And no one knows what happened to people after they left the camps, other than that they returned to the conditions from which they had emerged. These conditions included not just the war but Mengistu’s programme of ethnic cleansing through ‘resettlement’, itself funded, directly and indirectly, by the aid operation. ‘Resettlement’ led to some half a million people being forcibly moved from the north of the country to the south, costing, it has been estimated, some 100,000 lives.
One point is certain: the war which we helped fuel continued for another six years, claiming many thousands more lives. That is, in itself, no reason to have passed by on the other side, but the balance sheet remains far less conclusive than Geldof believes. According to him, critics of emergency aid are by definition guilty of indifference. Yet how can we learn if we are not prepared to think? No one has all the answers, but a more informed public debate about the limits of aid would be a step in the right direction. Those who benefit most from the simplifications and evasions which characterised aid to Ethiopia in the mid-1980s are local governments, aid agencies and the media. The victims are, so often, those whose suffering attracted the attention of the world in the first place.
Tough stuff. And kind of hard to take. Makes one defensive. Makes me defensive, for some reason.