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8 Observations from Live 8

I got an invitation last week to be backstage at Live 8 in Philadelphia. I was intrigued by the event and its goals, but decided to stay home and do some research so I politely declined. For those that missed it, Live 8 was a music festival held in nine major cities on the same day, each with an unprecedented artist roster.



View the official Live 8 website
Live 8 was not a charity event, but an awareness event designed to bring global attention to poverty in Africa. It was backed by corporate sponsors in each country and also Time Warner, which had exclusive broadcast rights. The event asked viewers to demand that the G8 group of nations (comprising Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and Russia) forgive African debt, double aid and deliver trade justice. I spent the holiday weekend watching the concert and learning more about the situation. Here are some observations:

1) Bono and Bob Geldof are passionate and committed guys.

Look past the magical musical talent of Bono and you find a remarkably sincere individual. You can view a speech of his, which gives you background on his views and see his passion first hand. Bob Geldof was the man behind Live Aid and now Live 8. I'm in awe of his ability to imagine and produce events that ripple around the globe.

2) MTV bungled the TV coverage in unprecedented fashion.

With day-long concerts jam packed with A-list talent in half a dozen different time zones, you expect a nonstop avalanche of music from dawn to dusk. Instead, you got awkward mid-song breakaways to commercials, video feeds that hopped nonstop to different venues, and incessant banter from VJs marveling at the event. It was stunningly horrific, and it's hard to believe any music fan in Time Warner management could allow this travesty to transpire.

3) Sorry African nations, you can't watch the concert.

In what may be the start of a new trend, I'm told that video streaming of every Live 8 concert was available, and viewers had the ability to navigate directly to any performance then fast forward and rewind the footage. Unfortunately, in an ugly example of music incompatibility, the video stream was available only in Windows Media, which means Mac and Linux users were locked out. You may recall that Microsoft settled claims related to their illegal business tactics used wipe out Netscape with Time Warner. As part of the agreement, Time Warner agreed to wipe out -- er ... I mean "switch" -- from Real Network technology to Microsoft technology, thus making Live 8 a "Microsoft-only" event. How ironic that an event focused on global poverty is only viewable with an outrageously expensive Microsoft solution that is far out of the reach of developing nations, and not viewable with Linux, the technology that is pulling emerging countries around the globe into the digital age.

4) Forgiving African debt is about fairness.

African countries are saddled with more than $100 billion of debt. Unfortunately, those monies did NOT go to the citizens, but were siphoned off by corrupt dictators or used to fund public works projects of highly questionable value that benefited brutal political regimes. There's a long list of African rulers, many still in power, who have amassed billions while citizens go hungry. It seems unconscionable to demand repayment from loans we distributed with no accountability from citizens that have no ability to repay.

"Forgiveness" is a kind, gentle, friendly word, but it should be clear what's happening here. Billions of dollars have flowed from the taxpayers of wealthier nations to a handful of dictators who have no regard for liberty, democracy or human rights.

5) Fair trade is good, but I'm not sure it benefits Africa in the near term.

There's no question that the United States is guilty of preaching a doctrine of "free trade" while at the same time protecting favorite industries like the sugar industry. It's sound economic policy to tear down tariffs and let goods flow to and from the most efficient producing countries. I hope the United States and other nations heed the call.

However, I'm not sure freer trade will substantially benefit African nations. Farmers in these countries aren't permitted to sell their products on the open market, but are forced to sell their crops at state-controlled marketing boards for predetermined prices. Additionally, the market for African agriculture products is not the United States, but other African nations where US trade policies will have no effect. Peasant sub-Saharan farmers will find it difficult to compete on a global scale with agribusiness bolstered by technologically state-of-the-art fertilizers, pest control and genetically designed crops.

6) Half a trillion dollars hasn't improved the situation, so why would a trillion?

About half a trillion dollars has flowed to Africa over the last 45 years and there are no studies that indicate a positive impact. Most shockingly, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) -- which along with the World Bank is responsible for the last $100 billion or so in aid -- recently issued two reports that find "little evidence of a robust positive impact of aid on growth." This from the organization responsible for distributing the money.

By many measures the monies have achieved the exact opposite effect because of the dramatically lower GDP in countries receiving aid. Africa has seen its GDP decline during the last 50 years along with a decline in life expectancy. In comparison, 50 years ago southeast Asia was comparable to Africa in colonialism and economic stature. During the same time period, they received roughly just 20% of the financial aid of Africa, yet their GDP more than doubled.

There are studies that have demonstrated how well-intended aid has propped up cruel governments, crippled economic freedoms, and slowed meaningful change for Africa. It's hard to see how two or three times the funds will yield dramatically different results than the first half trillion already spent.

7) Percentages can be misleading.

Some have criticized the United States for "stingingly" giving just 0.16 percent GNI (gross national income) and calling for all countries to give a recommended 0.7 percent. According to the Hudson Institute, the US Federal Government gave $19 billion -- far more than any other nation last year. And when added to private giving of Americans of $62 billion (which is substantially higher than European countries), you arrive at 0.68 percent. By any measure Americans are generous today.

8) Smarter aid is the key.

To fundamentally improve life for Africans, the aid needs to be packaged and delivered differently. The last 50 years is a long tale of great political minds failing at the task. It's much more difficult than simply signing a check.

I think a positive step is linking aid to meaningful economic and political reform, such as attempts by the Millennium Challenge Corporation. I don't believe it's possible to improve the financial fate of Africans without simultaneously bettering their political and economic conditions. Many nations are in the clutches of brutal dictators who withhold many basic economic rights. For example, peasant farmers in many countries can't even own their own land. Without these liberties, it's impossible for aid to flow to those most in need. (Those African countries with economic freedoms are considerably better off -- for instance, Botswana has a GDP more than 3 times higher than the average African nation.)

I guess the fact that I'm writing this Minute is a tiny bit of proof that Bono and Geldof are achieving their mission with Live 8. Well done, guys! And if the rumor is true that MTV is going to rebroadcast the event and actually play the music this time, you must catch Green Day's performance of Queen's "We Are the Champions."

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