U2 has been touting the One Campaign every night on their latest world tour. After seeing them live I decided to check out for myself just what the One Campaign was and try to figure out if it was something that I could support.
According to their website, the One Campaign pledge is:
WE BELIEVE that in the best American tradition of helping others help themselves, now is the time to join with other countries in a historic pact for compassion and justice to help the poorest people of the world overcome AIDS and extreme poverty. WE RECOGNIZE that a pact including such measures as fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs – education, health, clean water, food, and care for orphans – would transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation in the poorest countries, at a cost equal to just one percent more of the US budget. WE COMMIT ourselves – one person, one voice, one vote at a time – to make a better, safer world for all.
It’s a grand vision, and I can appreciate the desire to change the world for the “extreme poor.” Yet this is where desire and reality meet. As a huge fan of U2 and a humanitarian, I want the One Campaign to make a difference. In the end, unfortunately I can’t sign this pledge. Mainly because I believe that if the actions described in the pledge are put into action, extreme poverty would simply be perpetuated.
I realize that’s a pretty harsh rebuke of an organization that is trying really hard to simply help people. Yet the desire to help can simply waste resources if it is not utilized properly. Why do I consider the One Campaign to be a waste? Because I believe that they have the big picture wrong, the ideology, their vision is misplaced. You can’t help the poor if you don’t understand why they are poor. I’ll try to explain by going through the pledge line by line.
My first red flag went up on the very first sentence. Aren’t the ideas “the best American tradition of helping others help themselves,” and “join other countries in a historic pact” contradictory? I mean when has the US joining other countries in a historic pact ever helped people help themselves?
Let’s see, the US joined forces with France and England in World War I, the end of which led to the League of Nations. Well no, that didn’t help anyone help themselves, it lead to the horrible Versailles Treaty. After a twenty year cease-fire, the US joined other countries to fight WWII and joined in an historic pact to create the Orwellian named United Nations. Only the UN was never really a place to help people help themselves. It was simply a venue for world superpowers to compete without shooting at each other. After the cold war the UN turned into the most corrupt endeavor in human history (that is not hyperbole). History shows that the US getting involved with other nations in historic pacts has done basically squat for people trying to help themselves.
Let’s look a the second sentence – maybe it will be more grounded:
WE RECOGNIZE that a pact including such measures as fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs – education, health, clean water, food, and care for orphans – would transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation in the poorest countries, at a cost equal to just one percent more of the US budget.
Okay way too long. Let’s break the ideas here down a bit:
Fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs would transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation in the poorest countries [of Africa].
Okay this is a nonstarter. I agree that accomplishing debt relief, fighting corruption etc, could indeed, “transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation,” but it’s unclear that it would do so in a positive fashion. Let’s look at each item, one at a time.
Would “fair trade” help address those suffering extreme poverty in Africa? Fair trade, as the saying goes, is neither fair nor trade. It is in fact what Africa already has, with European and American farm subsidies keeping Africa out of the free market – that would allow them to sell their goods for a profit. What Africa needs in free trade, that ugly hated evil monster, that well, helps make poor people richer.
Debt relief – I think we can all agree that some amount of debt relief was necessary in Africa. But the degree that the One Campaign is calling for raises new issues. What, for instance, is to stop a newly solvent government or dictator from using its country’s newly minted good credit and small debt to borrow more money? What if that money was used to further repress the population that the debt relief was supposed to help? In the wrong hands, debt relief could be a curse.
Fighting Corrupting – again an issue that is easy to get behind, but how is this to be accomplished? Fighting corruption is easy if the rule of law is in place. Without addressing lawlessness, fighting corruption is just a feel good slogan. So how, in a country that doesn’t even have defined property laws, are people encouraged to fight corruption? It has again to do with that other pesky question. What is the real root of poverty in Africa?
The same reasoning applies to “directing additional resources for basic needs.” Yes this would be great, especially if the countries in question actually cared enough to do it. Some Western NGO is not going to be able to effectively direct resources on such a large scale. It gets back to the corruption issue. Directing resources cannot be addressed without dealing with the root cause of extreme poverty in Africa.
Okay on to the second part of the sentence:
[This could be accomplished] at a cost equal to just one percent more of the US budget.
I’m trying really hard to take this sentence seriously, but I find it very naïve. I think what I am seeing here is a break down of economic philosophy. The people behind the One Campaign obviously have a top down view of the world, a socialist world view mainly – where government can solve all problems. Only without addressing the root cause of poverty, no amount of money will matter. Handouts are never self-sustaining, never have been. The cost will be a circular, it will continue each year, each decade, just has it has since the Europeans where kicked off of the continent.
Of course that brings up another issue. In the One Campaign’s drive to fix Africa, it has an image issue. Bono at times cuts very close to echoing the “white man’s burden” ethos that so plagued the West in the past. Surely a continent as rich and varied as Africa can help itself and doesn’t just need another wave of Western led salvation – salvation that in the past led to colonization, which led to many of the problems that still plague much of Africa today.
Finally we come to the last sentence, “WE COMMIT ourselves – one person, one voice, one vote at a time – to make a better, safer world for all.” Now this I totally agree with, and I do commit to doing so – by refuting the One Campaign pledge. Without addressing the root cause of extreme poverty none of the efforts called for in the pledge matter. In their top down view of the world, the One Campaign has failed to take into account the last hundred years of economic reality.
At worst, the measures called for in the pledge will foster and support those that allow extreme poverty to exist. What then is the root cause? The root cause of extreme poverty in Africa is the lack of democracy. As Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme from Cameroon put it so eloquently in the New York Times, via Powerline: (link under powerline -http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F2081EF738540C768DDDAE0894DD404482)
Neither debt relief nor huge amounts of food aid nor an invasion of experts will change anything. Those will merely prop up the continent’s dictators. It’s up to each nation to liberate itself and to help itself. When there is a problem in the United States, in Britain, in France, the citizens vote to change their leaders. And those times when it wasn’t possible to freely vote to change those leaders, the people revolted.
In Africa, our leaders have led us into misery, and we need to rid ourselves of these cancers. We would have preferred for the musicians in Philadelphia and London [Live 8 – ed] to have marched and sung for political revolution. Instead, they mourned a corpse while forgetting to denounce the murderer.