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Playing for Change

June 08, 2005

On July 2, Irish rocker Bob Geldof is going to try to do something British Prime Minister Tony Blair couldn't: Get President Bush to do more about poverty and unnecessary death in Africa. We wish him well, but he probably doesn't stand a chance.

Blair came to Washington on Tuesday to call in some chits from Bush, likely thinking he had earned a few after risking his political career by backing Bush's war in Iraq, which was hugely unpopular in Britain. He wanted Bush to support the cornerstone of Britain's agenda as this year's head of the Group of 8 nations -- a doubling of direct aid to Africa by 2010 and relief from billions in debt for African countries. In response, Bush announced that the U.S. would contribute $674 million for famine relief in Eritrea and Ethiopia. This is the diplomatic equivalent of Mr. Wilson giving Dennis the Menace a few bucks to go away and leave him alone.

The urgency of Africa's need is hard to overstate. Millions of Africans die every year of preventable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, not to mention scourges like AIDS. Famine, war and poverty are disturbingly common. Aid from the developed world won't by itself solve all these problems, but it will help.

Geldof, who raised about $140 million for African famine relief by staging the Live Aid concerts 20 years ago, is also hoping to influence Bush and other world leaders. His Live 8 event next month will present concerts in five cities -- London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Philadelphia -- aiming to raise public awareness and prompt music fans to pressure their leaders to focus on Africa. The concerts are keyed to the G-8 summit, a meeting of leaders of the eight top industrial nations, in Scotland starting July 6.

It's a worthy effort. Our only quibble is that we wish Geldof were as savvy about U.S. politics as he is about African aid.

As Bush demonstrated Tuesday, the United States is the biggest obstacle to Britain's Africa initiative. The other G-8 members, with the exception of Japan, have signaled support for greater commitments to Africa, while the U.S. has flatly rejected key points of Blair's plan. Bush and Blair said Tuesday that they are close to an agreement on debt relief, and Bush rightly pointed out that he has tripled U.S. aid to sub-Saharan Africa; during his tenure the nation's foreign aid contributions have risen from 0.1% of national income to 0.16%. But that's still far short of U.S. promises -- in 2000, it and other G-8 nations vowed to raise foreign aid to 0.7% of national income.

Given all that, Geldof would be wise to target his appeal to a U.S. audience. Instead, he's preaching to the converted by throwing four concerts in Europe. Although plenty of Americans will watch on TV, the Eurocentric focus of the event will be obvious -- and European politics don't play well in the red states.

Relieving poverty in the Third World is that rare issue with support from both secular liberals and religious conservatives. If Geldof really wants to get Bush's attention, he should go after the Republican base and recruit country and western stars for shows in cities like Houston and Atlanta. A bunch of well-meaning rock fans in Paris won't have the same effect.

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