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The voice of Africa

Bob Geldof - 290 million people free of debt slavery

Bob Geldof - 290 million people free of debt slavery

Irish rocker and anti-poverty campaigner Bob Geldof, KBE, believes a stand-alone trade deal for Africa is crucial if the continent's trade is to be kickstarted. In a telephone interview, Joanna Ripard found him forthcoming, friendly and looking forward to visiting Malta next month.

LIVE 8 organiser Bob Geldof, who will perform at Live YMCA at Manoel Island on June 28 to raise funds for Malta's homeless, can identify with homelessness - not only did he work with Dublin's homeless as a teenager, he had to live it rough when he first moved to London.

"I was young and I was OK," he told The Sunday Times in a telephone interview last Wednesday. "I used to play my guitar in the cinema queues to get some money, and sell hotdogs and things in London. Then I eventually lived in a squat in North London.

"When I was 15 in Dublin I did not do any work in school really, because my mother was dead and my father was selling towels all over the country. So there was no-one to make me do my homework. I would go out at night and joined an organisation called the Simon Community which worked with the homeless in Dublin. We would light fires in the market and get free bread and vegetables and make soup for the homeless and keep them warm. I enjoyed that.

"So when I heard that this concert was for the homeless, I was happy because it is something I am aware of. I deal with it in Africa, especially in the cities. Homelessness is a standard condition, especially for a lot of children who have been orphaned by AIDS, who are then swept up by the armies because it is the only family they get to know."

Mr Geldof, who has coffee some mornings with a Maltese Soho club-owner friend, will only be in Malta for 48 hours. Was he looking forward to performing in Malta?

"I have just seen endless TV pictures of Malta," he says. "It looks so beautiful. I would have also liked to go to Gozo but I do not think I will have the chance as I have to get back to England the next day for a press conference. But I'll come over, put a toe in the water, so to speak, and probably come back in the summer."

The Malta concert falls within a string of dates Mr Geldof, 54, is playing in Germany, Norway, Portugal and Italy until the end of July. His last release was Under the Influence, a collection of musical influences and inspirations, in 2004. He plans to release some new material soon but felt he was under no pressure.

"Music has a different function for me now. I am not engaged in the charts or that sort of thing. It does not interest me at all. If a record of mine becomes a hit, that's fine. Great. But that is not what I am pursuing. Time is not an issue for me...

"Nothing influences me to write except the desire to write. And I don't try to force that desire... I have millions of things to do throughout the day. It'll come when it's ready. But all the time, I go around with a notebook and I am jotting down things I have seen or heard, or things that suggest themselves to me. And they will eventually come out in a song.

"I listen to new music all the time, because that's what interests me. Not that I am trying to play the cool Dad or anything, but I have four daughters, so they're always listening to their music in the house. Listening to new things is what interests me as I like to hear what people are doing."

Mr Geldof refutes the notion of his going against the grain. In his view, musical rebellion is about being "ahead of the pack" and "looking for the newer idea". Even before I ask about his work to relieve African poverty, Mr Geldof turned to the issue that stole his heart in 1984 and spurred him to organise Live Aid. He received an honorary knighthood and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times since.

"Ideas strike me as being old very quickly. Also, the world moves so fast that conclusions you arrived at a year ago seem very redundant and that is particularly true if you are doing political things," he points out.

"I was on the Commission for Africa and (it issued) a radical document but already parts of it are out of date because the situation in Africa changes so quickly. We could not forsee how big an influence China would be on the ecomony, or the discovery of oil in these places, and the impact that would have politically...

"The (Doha Round of) the World Trade Organisation talks will fail. They will not be successful, they will fall apart because they began six years ago and nobody could have anticipated Afghanistan, Iraq, Europe being paralysed in the face of the global economic glare which was caused by the rise of China and India suddenly... Three years ago, China was a net recipient of foreign aid, now it will pull one million people out of extreme poverty this year. Extraordinary things happen and the same is true of society."

The Commission for Africa was a British-led initiative designed to make major changes in African development. Mr Geldof sat on the commission, chaired by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, alongside Chancellor Gordon Brown, France's former head of the International Monetary Fund Michel Camdessus and veteran US Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker. The commission's final report was issued in March last year.

The G8 leaders who met in Gleneagles in July last year agreed to cancel $40 billion of debt of the 19 poorest countries and met the commission's recommendation that aid for Africa should be doubled to $50 billion by 2010. A few days before the summit, Bob Geldof empowered millions of people to put pressure on the world leaders to "make poverty history" with a string of concerts called Live 8 in major cities across the globe. Three billion people watched the event.

There have been complaints however that many reforms on trade promised in the Africa Commission report have failed to materialise although there had been much progress on aid and debt relief.

"It's not debt relief, it's debt cancellation, which is the revolutionary change," Mr Geldof quickly points out. "Debt relief means you let them off the hook for a few years but they still remain debt slaves. Just words themselves have great power in the political world. It was a final acknowledgement that the whole debt issue was economic sophistry of the worst kind simply because it kept generations in slavery. It meant you were born owing money and died owing even more money, which you then passed on to generations in the future; this was money you could never pay and money which we did not need. So it was disgusting.

"Finally we got them to agree at the G8 in Gleneagles that this was nonsense and that they would immediately cancel the debt of the 19 poorest countries. That is 14 African countries, which means that today because of the Commission, Live 8 and Gleneagles, 290 million people are free forever of debt slavery.

"Does that have an impact? Yes, in Tanzania alone, one and half million children who otherwise would never have gone to school are now in school because Tanzania is free of debt slavery. That is just one country. So it is hugely significant."

Mr Geldof is also involved in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countires Initiative (HIPC) launched by the World Bank and the IMF in 1996. He disagrees with the HIPC framework but has to work with it because "that's what they agreed to do". HIPC is working to pull 42 countries out of poverty, although Geldof argues that there are 62 extremely poor countries in the world. (Geldof is however only involved with African countries within the HIPC, given his expertise on the continent.)

"Even countries that were not part of HIPC like Nigeria got rid of their debt last year but doing very smart - actually - debt deals," Mr Geldof remarks. "(That) is an indication of good governance which nobody acknowledges when they go on about corruption but Nigeria managed to get a very good deal. So you do see progress across the board on the debt issue and I fully expect that within five years we would fully resolve it. That's the first thing.

"The second thing is: does aid work? Yes it does, but we don't want people to be dependent on aid forever, so we have got to get the trade issue correct. With the failure of the WTO talks, that looks like that won't be done. So with debt and aid there has been significant progress. We still have to get the aid piece fully paid for. I think Italy will not be able to pay for it. Germany will pay for it even though they can't afford it, really. The French and the British will. I think Bush will pay for it but I don't think Congress will allow him to, so that's where we're at but it's a daily fight, but we'll get there."

Mr Geldof is convinced the WTO Doha Round will fail, "which would be a catastrophe for the developed world and an unmitigated disaster for the poor world."

His 'Plan B' is a stand-alone trade deal for Africa, 'Aid for Trade', a deal that would cost the rest of the world next to nothing. African trade constitutes just one per cent of total world trade.

He explains: "The stand-alone trade deal would acknowledge that Africa has no cards or chips to play with at the global poker table. Whatever they get are crumbs from the rich man's table. That, frankly, isn't enough. What has to happen is that we get at least a one per cent increase in African trade, a one per cent increase is equal to five times the total aid that goes into the African continent. Just one per cent...

"The existing agreements, like Europe's Common Agricultural Policy, are ridiculous impediments to trade, like the 'rules of origin' laws which state that if a product comes from Madagascar, it has to be 100 per cent exclusively Madagascaran. But if you get a chair from Madagascar that has a Chinese nail, just one Chinese nail, they cannot export that to us... There is no real, economic logic to it, there is no fairness or equity. We (the EU and America) are not free trading blocs. We are protectionist rackets. Al Capone would be very proud of the EU.

"What we have to have is genuine open trade. We must not insist on the liberalisation of the economies of the poorest countries in the world... The cost to knock out subsidies for the cotton industry in America just to allow West African farmers to trade against, for example, Bangladesh or the Americans themselves, would be utterly negligible."

Do small states like Malta have a role to play in all of this?

"Malta has a particularly vital role," Mr Geldof points out, given our location and the issue of illegal immigration, problems we share with other Mediterreanean islands like Pantelleria and Lampedusa.

"These are people who want to come to Europe for a better life. I am an immigrant. I came to England for a better life and I got it. There are two issues here. It is in our self-interest to boost the economy of Africa, the sole continent in economic decline. We will try and revert the trade imbalances. They, in turn, must have good governance which tackles corruption, the rule of law, private property issues, all those things, otherwise it is not going to work.

"In the meantime, nothing is going to stop very ambitious people leaving their countries, crossing a desert the size of the US and try to get to us. So it is in our self-interest that we help Africans build their own economies so the people can trade there by themselves. No one wants to leave their home country. It is in our interest to have a trading partner in Africa which buys our stuff. It is in our interest that people could stay and create lives in Africa because our social systems would buckle under the strain.

"The smaller islands of the Mediterranean have a voice in this, you are at the southernmost tip of Europe, you are a bridge between the two continents. You have a peculiarly apt voice to be heard."

This interview was made possible with the collaboration of XFM. Live YMCA on June 28, is part of the YMCA's Twelve Appeal to raise funds for and awareness of Malta's homeless people. Its main supporters are HSBC and Vodafone. Tickets details will be announced this week. After the YMCA Homeless Personalities stint in Valletta last weekend, over Lm2,500 in cash and Lm5,000 in kind were raised. Donations may be still be made by sending a text message to 5061-9088 (Lm2) or 5061-9212 (Lm5).

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