The Man Who Betrayed the Poor

Even as the G8 promises fall apart, Geldof stays silent

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 6th September 2005

Two months have not elapsed since the G8 summit, and already almost everything has turned to ashes. Even the crustiest sceptics have been shocked by the speed with which its promises have been broken.

It is true that they didn’t amount to much. The World Development Movement described the agreement as “a disaster for the world’s poor.”(1) ActionAid complained that “the G8 have completely failed to deliver trade justice.”(2) Christian Aid called July 8th as “a sad day for poor people in Africa and all over the world.”(3) Oxfam lamented that “neither the necessary sense of urgency nor the historic potential of Gleneagles was grasped by the G8.”(4) But one man had a different view. Bob Geldof, who organised the Live8 events, announced that “a great justice has been done. .. On aid, 10 out of 10; on debt, eight out of 10 … Mission accomplished frankly.”(5)

Had he not signed off like this, had he not gone on to describe a South African campaigner who had criticised the deal as “a disgrace”(6), Geldof could have walked away from the summit unencumbered by further responsibility. He could have spent the rest of his life on holiday, and no one would have minded. But it was because he gave the G8 his seal of approval, because he told us, in effect, that we could all go home and stop worrying about Africa that he now has a responsibility to speak out.

The uses to which a Geldof can be put are limited. Before the summit he was seen by campaigners as naïve, ill-informed and unaccountable. But he can make public statements with the potential to embarrass politicians. While they don’t usually rise above the “give us your focking money” level, they do have the effect of capturing the attention of the press. But though almost everything he said he was fighting for has fallen apart, he has yet to tell the public.

Immediately after the summit, as the world’s attention shifted to the London bombs, Germany and Italy announced that they might not be able to meet the commitments they had just made, due to “budgetary constraints”(7). A week later, on July 15th, the World Development Movement obtained leaked documents showing that four of the IMF’s European directors were trying to overturn the G8’s debt deal(8). Four days after that, Gordon Brown dropped a bomb. He admitted that the aid package the G8 leaders had promised “includes the numbers for debt relief.”(9) The extra money they had promised for aid and the extra money they had promised for debt relief were in fact one and the same.

Nine days after that, on July 28th, the United States, which had appeared to give some ground at Gleneagles, announced a pact with Australia, China and India to undermine the Kyoto protocol on climate change(10). On August 2nd, leaked documents from the World Bank showed that the G8 had not in fact granted 100% debt relief to 18 countries, but had promised enough money only to write off their repayments for the next three years(11). On August 3rd, the United Nations revealed that only one third of the money needed for famine relief in Niger, and 14% of the money needed by Mali had been pledged by the rich nations(12). Some 5 million people in the western Sahel remained at risk of starvation.

Two weeks ago, we discovered that John Bolton, the new US ambassador to the United Nations, had proposed 750 amendments to the agreement which is meant to be concluded at next week’s UN summit. He was, in effect, striking out the Millennium Development Goals on health, education and poverty relief, which the United Nations set in 2000(13). Yesterday, ActionAid released a report showing that the first of these goals – equal access to schooling for boys and girls by 2005 – has been missed in over 70 countries(14). “Africa”, it found, “is currently projected to miss every goal.” There is so little resolve at the UN to do anything about it that the summit could deliver “a worse outcome than the situation before the G8.” Yet Geldof remains silent.

“We are very critical of what Bob Geldof did during the G8 Summit”, Demba Moussa Dembele of the African Forum on Alternatives tells me. “He did it for his self-promotion. This is why he marginalized African singers, putting the limelight on himself and Bono, rather than on the issues. … The objectives of the whole Live8 campaign had little to do with poverty reduction in Africa. It was a scheme intended to project Geldof and Blair as humanitarian figures coming to the rescue of “poor and helpless” Africans.”(15)

“Right from the beginning,” says Kofi Mawuli Klu of the Forum of African Human Rights Defenders, “he has acted in his own selfish interests. It was all about self-promotion, about usurping the place of Africans. His message was “shut up and watch me”. Without even understanding the root causes of the problems, he used his role to drown the voices of the African people and replace them with his own. There are many knowledgeable people – African and non-African – who could have advised him, but he has been on his own, ego-tripping.”(16)

I have heard similar sentiments from every African campaigner I have spoken to. Bob Geldof is beginning to look like Mother Teresa or Joy Adamson. To the corporate press, and therefore to most of the public, he is a saint. Among those who know something about the issues, he is detested. Those other tabloid saints appeared to recognise that if they rattled the cages of the powerful, the newspapers upon which their public regard depended would turn against them. When there was a conflict between their public image and their cause, the image won. It seems to me that Geldof has played the same game.

He seized a campaign which commanded great public enthusiasm, which had the potential gravely to embarrass Tony Blair and George Bush. He asked us to focus not on the harm the G8 leaders were doing, but on the help they might give. When they failed to deliver, he praised them anyway. His endorsement and the public forgetfulness it prompted helped license them to start reversing their commitments. When they did so, he said nothing. This looks to me like more than just political naivity. It looks as if he is working for the other side.

I don’t mean that this is what he intended – or intends – to do. I mean that he came to identify with the people he was supposed to be lobbying. By ensuring that the campaign was as much about him as about Africa, he ensured that if they failed, he failed. He needed a story with a happy ending.

There is just one thing that Geldof can now do for Africa. This is to announce that his optimism was misplaced, that the mission was not accomplished, that the struggle for justice is as urgent as ever. But while he holds his tongue, he will remain the man who betrayed the poor.


1. World Development Movement, 8th July 2005. G8 condemn Africa to miss Millennium Development Goals. Press Release.

2. ActionAid, 8th July 2005. ActionAid’s reaction to the G8 outcome. Press Release.

3. Christian Aid, 12th July 2005. The G8 – in terms of build-ups it couldn’t have been bigger. Press release.

4. Oxfam, 29th July 2005. Gleneagles: what really happened at the G8 summit?

5. DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), 8th July 2005. Bono, Geldof Reaction to G8 Africa Communique. Press release; Ewen MacAskill, Patrick Wintour and Larry Elliott, 9th July 2005. G8: hope for Africa but gloom over climate. The Guardian; Mark Townsend, 10th July 2005. Geldof delighted at G8 action on aid. The Observer.

6. Matthew Tempest, 8th July 2005. G8 leaders agree $50bn Africa package. The Guardian.

7. Oxfam, 29th July 2005, ibid.

8. WDM, 15th July 2005. Leaks reveal IMF threat to already weak G8 debt deal. Press release.

9. Minutes of Evidence Taken before Treasury Committee, 19th July 2005. To be published as HC 399-i. House of Commons.

10. Eg ABC online, 27th July 27 2005. Australia, US form climate change pact: report.

11. World Development Movement and Jubilee Debt Campaign, 2nd August 2005. Leaks reveal G8 debt deal faces funding shortfall. Press release.

12. BBC Online, 3rd August 2005. Hunger in Mali is being ‘ignored’.

13. Eg Julian Borger, 26th August 2005. Bolton throws UN summit into chaos. The Guardian.

14. Patrick Watt, 5th September 2005. Development Under Attack: will the 2005 poverty agenda unravel at the UN World Summit? ActionAid.

15. Demba Moussa Dembele, 3rd September 2005. By email.

16. Kofi Mawuli Klu, 4th September 2005. By phone.