President Bush described Bono, the lead singer of U2, as "a man of depth and a great heart who cares deeply about impoverished folks on the continent of Africa." I don't have any reason to challenge the president's sentiments or to question Bono's motives. But I do think the humanitarian impulses now ascending should be subject to the constraints of reality.
President Bush has tripled aid to Africa since the Clinton administration with just under $4 billion in development assistance and emergency aid. In addition, the president announced a plan to spend $15 billion over five years to turn the tide against AIDS in Africa.
Last month after the Bush-Blair news conference, the United States and Great Britain agreed to a $40 billion debt relief program through the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank.
Even these steps do not fully describe American aid to Africa since they exclude private charity from foundations, churches, unions and corporations. Live 8, arguably the century's most elaborate concert, with 100 artists performing in seven cities over 24 hours, will be yet another private effort to combat poverty and starvation in Africa.
This concert is not unlike Live Aid, a concert that celebrates its 20th anniversary on July 13. That was a 17 hour musical marathon reaching a television audience of more than 2 billion people and raised almost $2 billion to help famine-stricken people of Africa.
The force behind Live Aid was Bob Geldorf, band leader of the Boomtown Rats, who waxed emotional about the morality of rich nations assisting the poor and impoverished. Now he is back as one of the promoters of Live 8 featuring the most prominent names in the music business.
While these "feel good" activities have their place, they also raise essential questions. What happened to the $2 billion raised with Live Aid? Moreover, over the last decade government and private charities have poured over $25 billion into Africa for seemingly little effect? In fact, Africa has had an aggregate g.d.p. reduction of about 25 percent since the Live Aid concerts two decades ago.
Without question the issue at hand is poverty in Africa, but overlooked by well meaning rockers is that as long as tyrannical governments control the distribution of funds those targeted for relief never get it. Starvation is indeed a problem in many parts of Africa, most especially in the Sudan. But in this nation emergency food relief sent by the U.S. and others is used as a weapon to subjugate designated enemies of the government. This has been a pattern observed earlier in Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Despite the claim of Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute that America foreign aid to Africa is niggardly, the problem that neither he nor his colleagues consider sufficiently is how best to ensure that these foreign aid dollars end up in projects for which the money is earmarked rather than Swiss bank accounts for corrupt leaders.
As Peter Baur, the father of development economics once noted, "foreign aid is little more than poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries." For some, this statement may seem cynical. However, if one considers the way in which Mobutu, Mogabe, and a host of African leaders dealt with foreign aid, there is at least some validity to Baur's argument.
Eliminating poverty anywhere in the world is a worthwhile, if utopian, goal. But, money alone won't do it when those funds aren't used to address the problem. All the serenades of "We Are The World" and "Do They Know It's Christmas?" won't amount to a hill of beans unless there is accountability for the billions of dollars that will be contributed.
Surely this should have been learned from prior experience. Unfortunately when it comes to aid, the lessons of the past are either ignored or are bypassed by the expression of good will.