Irish rocker Bob Geldorf and the music superstars who recently held Live 8 concerts across the globe made a lot of noise. Their siren songs entreated us to pressure the leaders of the G-8 Nations to spend whatever it takes in Africa to "make poverty history."
But beyond the wall of electric amplifiers, a quiet truth rarely got much notice. You see, a cure for poverty has already been found. Yes, a cure!
And by freedom I mean more than just the right to buy rock 'n' roll records. I mean the right to private property, to buy and sell, to compete for any peaceful business. And more. Free markets and free individuals — communicating, trading, praying, working, with maximum liberty and minimum harassment from criminals or governments.
Throughout the history of agriculture there have been great advances in know-how and machinery. But none of these have vanquished poverty or famine from our world. It is the freedom to grow and harvest and enjoy the fruit (and grain and buffalo and ostrich) of one's labor that makes all the difference.
Unfortunately, freedom is too rarely prescribed. In the cruel history of our species, those wielding political power commonly doctor up the laws to favor themselves at the expense of the people.
Africa is such a place, sadly — poor precisely because of the many despots in power. According to the Heritage Foundation's 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, Africa lacks a single nation considered to be "free" and 87 percent of the continent's countries were found to be either "mostly unfree" or downright "repressed."
Dictators destroy economies. And too often they take the aid we send to help the poor and use it to stay longer in power.
Africans know this well. Asked about more aid, a Kenyan health care worker quickly and depressingly predicted that "the aid money will go into the pockets of corrupt officials to buy their fully loaded Mercedes-Benzes."
"For God's sake, please stop the aid," Kenyan economist James Shikwati bluntly told a German weekly. "If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit."
In the 20 years since Live 8's predecessor, Live Aid, raised $2 billion for African famine relief, Africa's Gross Domestic Product shrank 25 percent. The continent's share of world trade has fallen from 6 percent in 1980 to just 2 percent in 2002. Of course, this was not exactly Live Aid's fault: compared to the over $25 billion in foreign aid Africa has received over the last decade, Live Aid's effort was a drop in the bucket.
As the late economist Peter Bauer pointed out, "The argument that aid is indispensable for development runs into an inescapable dilemma. If the conditions for development other than capital are present, the capital required will either be generated locally or be available commercially from abroad to governments or to businesses. If the required conditions are not present, then aid will be ineffective and wasted."
Foreign aid just doesn't work. Sending more will only make aging musicians feel good.
But we can't say that the pop-musician activists are stuck in the past. They have swapped strategies. Unlike the Live Aid effort of two decades ago, which asked individuals to donate voluntarily, Live 8 asks us instead to lobby our leaders to fork over the cash.
Gee whiz, I wonder from which trees Bush, Blair and other politicians will pluck that cash?
The concerts were timed to influence the annual "Group of Eight" Summit, featuring the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the world's eight wealthiest countries. As Live 8 posted on its website: "This summer, these leaders will gather in Scotland to decide the fate of an entire generation living on less than one dollar a day."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair harmonized with the Live 8 effort, saying, "There can be no excuse, no defense, no justification for the plight of millions of our fellow human beings in Africa today." He's right there. But he adds, "And there should be nothing that stands in our way of changing it."
"Our" way? Are we really supposed to believe that Bush and Blair and other leaders of wealthy countries will decide the fate of Africans, without Africans getting even a cameo role? Isn't this just a little condescending?
Some Africans think so. Ousmane Sembene, a Senegalese-born filmmaker, called the efforts "fake." Nigerian musician Femi Kuti called Live 8 a "waste of time."
These men and others are looking elsewhere for solutions. Kuti cites a need for new leadership, saying, "Africa has very many old leaders who do not want to leave office. They are the ones who have made our debts reach billions of dollars through corruption and stealing. And they are still asking for more so that they can steal to their graves and leave the youth with the burden of paying the debts."
Mr. Shikwati says Africa "must take the first steps into modernity on its own. There must be a change in mentality. We have to stop perceiving ourselves as beggars."
Sembene states what is obvious and overlooked, "The only way for us to come out of poverty is to work hard."
True, the Live 8 campaigners are on target in demanding that Western governments end the agricultural subsidies that hurt African farm products in the world market. This is precisely where Americans can make a difference for Africans — by demanding a free market system here at home.
But the rest of the Live 8 agenda rehashes the same old snake oil: the West, with wealth produced by the freedom we have, must bail out countries in Africa, where government corruption and tyranny make progress impossible.
Luckily, Africa's future does not depend on Western aid. Or even rock 'n' roll.
Africa simply needs freedom. It won't be easy to come by. Never is. But it is a crusade that can and must be won by Africans themselves.
Time for a new campaign to make poverty history? Call it "Liber-8."