Whose Jubilee?

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on June 21, 2005

(by Mindy Belz, WorldMag.com) – What common cause could unite Pink Floyd and Rick Warren?

Meet Live8, ONE, Make Poverty History, and the Long Walk To Justice, all part of the latest gizmo-laden, concert-driven, wristband-toting, venue-hopping extravaganza powered by aging rockers and their fans in search of–and perhaps sincerely committed to–a cause.

The campaign, timed to arm-wrestle world leaders ahead of next month’s G8 summit into canceling debt against certain poor countries and increasing public aid, became so fierce last week that it reunited the ’70s band Pink Floyd and hauled Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren onto the bandwagon.

Latecomers have missed the launch parties, the launch videos, the petition-signing photo-ops, and the text-messaging contests. They have not, however, missed the main event: a kick-off concert in London’s Hyde Park on July 2, where Pink Floyd will perform together for the first time in 24 years (the band headlined the first free rock concert in Hyde Park in June 1968), along with more present-day legends: U2, Sting, REM, Coldplay, The Cure, Annie Lennox, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and more.

Other leading artists are scheduled to perform that day at Live8 concerts in Paris, Berlin, Rome, and in the United States at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. Organizers hope that concert-goers will transfer their enthusiasm from the mosh pits to the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, where Live8 planners are counting on nearly a quarter-million poverty protesters to arrive ahead of the leaders of the eight leading industrialized nations, who will gather there July 6-8. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who hosts this year’s summit, has made African poverty the top-line agenda item at the meeting.

Mr. Blair named Irish rock star and activist Bob Geldof to an international commission on Africa, which concluded that donor nations must eliminate more than $40 billion of debt owed by 18 of the world’s poorest nations, including 14 in Africa, by writing off the debt and increasing multilateral aid.

Live8, Mr. Geldof’s brainchild, follows 20 years after he organized Live Aid, a similar all-star concert series that raised $100 million in famine relief donations. Mr. Geldof insists that Live8 is different; the July events are not organized to raise money but to raise the heat on the world leaders to cancel the indebtedness and double aid to Africa. (WORLD requested an interview with Mr. Geldof, but his publicist said he is “not doing interviews at this time.”) A linked effort, the U.S.-based ONE Campaign, calls on the United States to contribute 1 percent of the federal budget–an additional $25 billion–to fight AIDS and extreme world poverty.

Running through this and other jubilee campaigns extending back over the last decade is the common lament that excesses of the West have contributed most to poverty in the developing world, that increasing aid from rich countries to poor countries will answer that injustice and eliminate worldwide impoverishment. Yet the United States gives the highest absolute amount in foreign aid of any country–in 2003, more than $16 billion, according to Hudson Institute senior fellow Carol Adelman. Hudson Institute research indicates private charity totaled over $35 billion for 2000, the last year such figures were tabulated–or three and one-half times U.S. government aid for that year. Those figures do not include giving by local U.S. churches.

But numbers aren’t slowing the celebrity endorsements or political stamps of approval. Mr. Blair traveled to Washington earlier this month to push for more Africa aid. Two weeks ago Mr. Bush announced $674 million in additional U.S. taxpayer resources for Africa. On June 11 the White House dropped its remaining objections to a G8 $40 billion debt-forgiveness plan. “We believe by removing a crippling debt burden, we’ll help millions of Africans improve their lives and grow their economies,” Mr. Bush said during a June 13 meeting with five African presidents.

The campaign stirs a sympathy chord among top-name evangelicals, too. Mr. Warren, the top-selling Christian author, issued a June 3 endorsement of The ONE Campaign, along with evangelist Billy Graham and British theologian John Stott. Christian music icons Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay, and tobyMac also signed. So have a variety of Christian relief organizations, including World Concern, World Vision, Episcopal Relief and Development, and Operation Blessing International, the relief and development arm of televangelist Pat Robertson’s empire.

But offstage a band of leading economists and scholars says the G8 plan is not only misguided but harmful, particularly for church-based poverty-fighting efforts. “Debt forgiveness rewards the corruption and inefficiency of governments who have mishandled loaned funds,” writes the editorial board of the Kairos Journal in a letter sent June 6 to Mr. Warren and Mr. Stott, along with others. “In forgiving the debt of poor nations, we’re not forgiving the debts of those nation’s poor; we’re merely enabling bureaucratic perfidy and incompetence.”

Kairos Journal senior fellow Gregory Alan Thornbury told WORLD, “It is a good thing Christians are thinking about these issues, but we want them to think about them in the right way.” Mr. Thornbury acknowledges that protectionist trade policies, particularly of the EU but also the United States, should be loosened. Beyond that, the poorest nations should look to Southeast Asia and India, where once-stricken economies are trading their way out of poverty.

Western nations have been down the debt-forgiveness road, writing off $33 billion in debt for 41 poor countries from 1989 to 1997. Yet those same countries incurred new borrowing totaling $41 billion, according to a World Bank report drafted by New York University economist William Easterly.

“African governments could not repay zero-interest World Bank loans that required no repayment until 10 years after the loan was made and then had a 40-year repayment period,” wrote Mr. Easterly in an editorial appearing this month in The Independent, a London daily. “What does that say about the pay-off to the money lent in the first place?”

Specifically, the critics counter the myths surrounding the media blitz as follows:

• Debt relief goes to governments of poor countries, not to poor people. Although the Bush administration insists on conditions to debt forgiveness, the Live8 and other proposals lay down no conditions. Debt relief would flow to Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, where food shortages this month sparked street riots while government policies have destroyed the country’s agriculture base and have limited UN relief to card-carrying party members.

• Debt relief rewards poor countries with high debt without assisting the impoverished in equally poor but low- or no-debt countries. Predominantly poor Bangladesh would see little benefit because it does not have an extensive debt burden to the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

• Macro-goals make little room for the only kind of accountability that works: local supervision over the performance of specific programs on the part of bureaucrats, nongovernmental aid agencies, and church-based relief workers. Critics say examples abound in the ongoing aftermath of the Asian tsunami. In May the World Bank discovered that much of the aid sent to Sri Lanka was sitting in docks, stalled by red tape and listless bureaucrats. “Collective responsibility does not work, for the same reason that collective farming has never worked,” writes Mr. Easterly.

• Debt elimination would have a chilling effect on credit. “If it becomes clear that debt will be written off in the future, then it is no longer a loan but a gift,” said Mr. Thornbury. He believes that will be a deterrent for both public and commercial lenders. “Why would you invest in something on which you would not have a return?” he asked.

• Debt elimination would have a chilling effect on private charity. “You can’t look at America and look at what the State Department gives and say that’s how much America gives,” Herb Lusk, pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, recently told the BBC. His church runs an extensive ministry to AIDS victims and “gives 10 percent of its income to Africa,” according to Mr. Lusk. “The problem is a problem that has to be solved not by governments but by people–people giving to people,” he said.

Mr. Thornbury believes that the greatest problem with proposals before the G8 is their failure to acknowledge the success and prevalence of faith-based programs. And, he said, “without spiritual transformation, the cycle of poverty will only continue.” Church leaders who endorse celebrity anti-poverty plans “have some naivete,” he said, but actually undermine faith-based efforts.

“Where is the sacrifice in this for the American church?” asked Mr. Thornbury. “It’s relatively easy to call on G8 leaders to write off debt, but where is the call to make hard choices when it comes to spending on ourselves in order to give to the neediest?”

That sort of quiet logic has a hard time competing with the din of a celebrity-studded moment. Over 2 million cell-phone users–a Guinness Book of World Records achievement–sent text messages to Mr. Geldof’s publicity team as part of a contest to win tickets to the Hyde Park event; 66,500 winners were selected. At least 100 tickets promptly showed up on eBay, drawing public outrage from Mr. Geldof, who accused eBay of “corporate arrogance” for operating “outside the morality of its audience.” EBay execs argued that its users had a “fundamental right” to sell merchandise, “whether they paid for it or won it in a competition,” but soon caved to the celebrity pressure and last week ordered remaining Live8 tickets blocked from online auction.

Which proves that it’s summer, when genial economists and scholars with the facts on their side will find it hard to compete with bare-chested rockers stomping at the mikes.

Reprinted here with permission from World Magazine.  Visit the website at www.worldmag.com.