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Poverty persists -- but so does Geldof

Two decades after Live Aid, he throws himself into a new worldwide concert to help relieve African suffering.

June 06, 2005|Phil Sutcliffe | Special to The Times

LONDON — Bob Geldof is a one-man force of nature -- and what the mastermind of Live Aid in 1985 and now Live 8 represents is that side of human nature with an inextinguishable faith in making life better for all.

With barely a month until July 2 concerts in six countries (and counting) featuring U2, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Sting and more than 50 other acts, Geldof quickly rattled off a scenario in which thousands of Americans join in his plan to help eliminate poverty in Africa.

"I want you [Americans] to fly over the Atlantic in the greatest fleet of private jets ever assembled and bring people to the G8 conference in Edinburgh," Geldof said in a film editing room here late last week. "If you own a plane, call me. I'm serious about it. It's going to happen."

It sounds crazy. But, when Geldof gets serious, the record shows that he can turn the unlikely into reality. In 1985, as the lead singer of a fading punk group, the Boomtown Rats, he created Live Aid to focus attention on starvation in Ethiopia and other African countries via a global telecast of massive rock concerts in London and Philadelphia.

Now it's Live 8, a new concert extravaganza, this one again wrapped around the world by TV.

The concerts in London (headlined by U2 and Paul McCartney), Philadelphia (Stevie Wonder, Will Smith), Berlin (Brian Wilson, Green Day), Paris (Andrea Bocelli, Johnny Halliday), Rome (Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Vasco Rossi) and Ottawa (still to be announced) will take place four days before the G8 conference of top leaders from the world's richest nations begins near Edinburgh, Scotland, the day he wants a million people from around the world to gather in the city.

That Geldof's idealism is often expressed via anger and four-letter epithets is simply a reaction to the suffering he has seen, the serial betrayals he believes the prosperous nations continue to inflict on the developing world.

Having announced the Live 8 plans around Europe earlier in the week, he was ferociously intolerant of the trivia and carping that crop up everyday here, whether it's the will-they-won't-they Spice Girls reunion rumor or complaints that the lack of African artists on the London bill is condescending.

"I haven't got time for that," he snapped.

Looking worn out, he was working late into the evening in London's Soho district to finish a six-part documentary for BBC-TV about Africa. "The choice of artists is totally practical. It's about arresting the world's attention to focus on an idea. We have to have the biggest acts. That's all."

Skeptics often fail to understand that Geldof, 50-ish, states his case with the authority of substantial experience and hard-won knowledge. He got into the spirit of social responsibility early when, as a 16-year-old in his native Dublin, Ireland, he devoted three nights a week to delivering hot soup and building street bonfires to aid the homeless and needy. Back then, he also started a branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

For 20 years he has poured that passion into crusading on behalf of Africa, spending the past year as a member of the Commission for Africa. This body was set up, at Geldof's instigation, by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who chaired it. It comprised government ministers and other specialists from all the continents and reported back with a set of integrated recommendations such as the cancellation of national debts to wealthy countries, a doubling of aid by 2010 and the ending of agricultural and export subsidies by the G8 nations.

"I want it all now," he said about the G8 and the world leaders' ability to put the goals into action.

"I'm in rock 'n' roll. That's what Live 8 is about: Do it all now! We can continue throwing our pounds and dollars into a tin bucket, but charity is just one individual reaching above the impenetrable roar of political discourse to touch a human being on the other side, and thank God for that. It keeps millions of human beings alive.

"However, what we need is for the politicians to do what they've promised. In 2000, at the United Nations, every leader signed up to the Millennium Development Goals. The pledge was to halve poverty by 2015. The first reporting point is this year, and at the present rate we won't have achieved even the 2005 objective until 2048. The money's there. The planet has never been wealthier, yet 50,000 people die unnecessarily every day in Africa."

The fiery Geldof even has a pithy answer to those who worry that the people of the G8 countries would be severely afflicted by the burden of following the Commission for Africa blueprint, this version instantly tailored for American readers in his usual shrewd fashion: "The greatest economists in the world have worked it out, not me, so I can tell you precisely what this whole program would cost each citizen of the United States: half a stick of chewing gum every day. Half a stick!"

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