Dr. Ebe M. Ochonu, Vanderbilt:

Chika Onyeani's piece (Dialogue 832)contains some significant conceptual interventions, although it would have been a lot more effective without the (retaliatory?) personal jabs.

I have to thank Onyeani for reinforcing a very important distinction between "debt relief and debt forgiveness," two seemingly innocuous but ideologically weighty and suggestive concepts, and the much more appropriate concept of "debt cancellation," which should be endorsed by all right-thinking Africans. I outlined this distinction in a recent piece of mine on this forum, although I did not flesh it out because I was preoccupied with another analytical objective.

To people unschooled in the politically powerful art of using words and concepts to shape political discussions and reality, this distinction may seem like a pedantic semantic obsession. Far from being so, it is a distinction upon which the current discussion of Africa's debt problem revolves. Concepts deployed in international political discussions are hardly neutral; they are often carefully and strategically crafted to shape perceptions and discussions which emanate from such perceptions.

In fact, in this particular case, the medium is the message, to use a mass communication terminology. For the concept of debt relief and debt forgiveness suggests that Africans do not deserve the gesture and that it is a magnanimous act of minimal or no self-interest on the part of the West. As Onyeani argues, it also effaces the nature and archaeology of these debts, which, as we know emanate from dubious loans knowingly provided to African governments who, it was known, would, with the active assistance of Western businessmen, economic hitmen, and financial institutions, embezzle them to benefit themselves and their Western collaborators.

You do not forgive bad loans; you write them off or cancel them. Such a gesture, more than anything else, connotes an important willingness on the part of Western governments to be self-critical and to admit a certain amount of culpability on their own part and on behalf of Western actors in the aid-corruption-Swiss-bank-accounts racket. The concept of debt cancellation, then, speaks both to a present programmatic imperative and a need for analytical/historical accuracy in the matter of African foreign debt.

My agreement with Onyeani ends here. I disagree with his comparison of the "Live Aid" movement with the Berlin Conference or the Scramble for Africa that crystallized in it. The analogy is a little far-fetched. The Scramble was animated by a different set of historical forces and was characterized by a more brazenly explicit social Darwinist and racist ethos than the present global initiatives on Africa. What's more, it endorsed and formalized a process of physical conquest and rule, while the present movement, condescending as it is, portends no such scheme.

Certainly, one can sense some rhetorical congruence between the grandiose redemptive proclamations of the G-8 summit and the "save Africa" rhetoric of mid to late 19th century Europe. The spectacle of a self-righteous and arrogant Europe (this time with Japan, Canada, and US), pontificating on the failings and supposedly intractable problems of Africa is quite disturbing and reminiscent of similar proclamations in the past. It does conjur up images from the distant past of Africa's interaction with Europe. And, of course, no self-respecting African would find palatable the television and radio soundbites about do-good white men (and boys)once again raising money to help Africa's needy and hungry. One would wish not to encounter such images.

However, I personally would not extend the criticisms of the G-8 summit of political leaders to the "Live Aid" initiative. I have serious problems with the occasional noise of the G-8 regarding Africa's problems, a noise which is not usually accompanied by sincere and comprehensive plans for redress, recompense and amelioration. Indeed the forum is more a gathering for Africa bashing and the repetition of an almost pathologized notion of Africa's hopelessness and dependence than it is a meeting for an honest quest for comprehensive solutions to the African predicament.

I cannot honestly analyze Live Aid in the preceding terms. The "Live Aid" initiative is different in that it casts itself as a purely humanitarian intervention. That such humanitarian interventions are always targeted at Africa is a cause for concern. The way in which these initiatives are packaged and the rhetoric deployed to publicize them are quite disturbing, paternal, and patronizing--the product, sometimes, of media sensationalism. But these images are the unfortunate products of the reality of the African situation. The truth is that certain parts of the continent are in dire need of urgent humanitarian actions. It is sad but true that Africa is still the world's poorest continent and thus the poster face of global poverty. But this reality is not the fault of Bob Geldorf, Bono, or Madonna. It is the fault of a multitude of actors and circumstances ranging from corrupt African leaderships, to lethargic and indifferent civil societies in Africa, to Western corporations and governments who participate in or tolerate schemes and policies which worsen the continent's economic fate.

These Western musicians and actors have no moral culpability in the ruination of Africa. One could argue quite tenously that these rich white musicians are culpable on a certain level, being vicarious and unwitting beneficiaries of some of the historical and contemporary Western practices that have contributed to Africa's present plight. But, this would be a weak argument.

These anti-poverty activists have, for the most part, earned their livings honesty from their creative expressions. They do not have to care about poverty in Africa. They do not have to do anything. After all, they are not the Western politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, and businessmen who have contributed and continue to contribute to the impoverishing of the continent through dubious schemes and hypocritical trade practices. These young musicians are not the Western politicians and corporations who will benefit from a prosperous and stable Africa or suffer the adverse but logical consequences of a poor, unstable, and badly governed Africa.

In spite of this mental, moral, and material distance from the African predicament, these privileged men and women in the Western anti-poverty movement have the humanity, sense of compassion, and conscience to craft a humanitarian initiative that will bring IMMEDIATE relief to the hungry, the diseased, and the needy in many parts of Africa--people who don't care about the nuances or contradictions of the "Live Aid" initiative or the matters of culpability, causality, and racialized imagery associated with current discussions of the African situation; people who just want immediate humanitarian help.

I don't think we Africans gain anything for ourselves or for our struggle by mocking or trivializing the efforts of the anti-poverty movement in the West. We can point out the near-revolutionary naivety and Utopian idealism which inevitably color such movements. But in the end, the Bonos and the Geldorfs deserve praise and commendation for their extraordinary humanity, and for using a private anti-poverty initiative to put pressure on Western officialdom, which, so far, has been way behind Oxfam, Bono, Geldorf, and others in appreciating the dire need for action on the continent.

There is room in Africa for both the gradiose, bureaucratic (and elusive and pretentious) plans of the G-8 and the humanitarian gesture of Live Aid. The former, if it ever materializes, is a long-term systemic initiative calculated, at least in rhetoric, to generate economic growth, curb corruption and bad governance, and increase responsible social spending. The latter is aimed at providing IMMEDIATE relief for Africans whose life may depend on such help and who cannot afford to wait for the ever-elusive international Marshall Plan for Africa to materialize, if ever it will.

Small, ad-hoc, and target-specific steps like Live Aid should not be derided; they go a long way, and fill niches that often get forgotten in highfalutin discussions of African problems and how to solve them. Live Aid does not remove from the table the need to work out developmental plans for Africa; it does not obliterate the need to encourage and fight for democratic reforms in Africa or the need to curb corruption and its internal and external props. In fact Live Aid complements these goals and draws a popular, show-biz attention to them. For good or ill, entertainment has proven to be a great tool of activism and awareness in our world. Caring, even if self-righteous, Westerners who recognize this convergence of entertainment and social consciousness and are willing to put their show-biz celebrity status at the disposal of the movement to fight poverty in Africa deserve a lower critical standard than the Western politicians who have so far refused to do the right thing regarding Africa because of a plethora of economic and political pressures from their countries.

In fact, I would love to see Africans become Bonos and Geldorfs, ignoring the endless political analysis, discussions, and "complex" "long-term" and "sustainable" "salvation plans" for Africa to save lives, feed hungry stomachs, and deliver medicine to those who need them on the continent. I am tired of endless, trite, repetitive analysis of familiar African problems and of reading countless developmental models for Africa calling for elusive political, economic, and social actions which may take decades to happen, and most of which mean nothing to the needy in Africa. If I had the money or the celebrity status I would put my Ph.D. aside and get into the trenches as Bono, Geldorf, and others have done.

What is particularly impressive about the latest Live Aid movement is that, while raising money for humanitarian actions on the continent, it is also focusing attention on the major dimensions of the African crisis, namely, debt cancellation, increased, more responsible but wholly free aid, fair trade, and political and economic transparency in Africa.

For all these laudable efforts I am willing to forgive the problem of image and rhetoric which has plagued the latest Live Aid installment and which hurts my pride as an African. My African pride has to take the back seat to the imperative to save and nurture a few African lives where possible. Africa is not not concept whose honor should be preserved at the expense of its (expendable?) human inhabitants.