WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 20...Can a man who has been honored by the Queen of England, given a TED award for social activism, named a Time Magazine Person of the Year, nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Grammy and a Nobel Peace Prize be all bad?
Leah Schildkraut thinks he can.
Bono, lead singer of U2, billionaire financier and globetrotting philanthropist, has devoted much time and energy to raising money for African causes.
But Schildkraut, Emerging Economies Specialist, with the Anarcho-Feminist Alliance, thinks he and other celebrities are doing more harm than good.
"Africa doesn't need handouts," she said. "It needs a level playing field."
On the eve of President-elect Obama's inauguration, she traveled to Washington with a delegation of African entrepreneurs to expose what she called the "cult of celebrity charity," and to lobby officials of the incoming administration for free trade agreements with Africa, investment initiatives and aid to local businesses.
They stood in the happily milling crush near the Lincoln Memorial holding signs, demanding "Independence, not Dependence," and "Trade Not Aid for Africa." Schildkraut had set up a table with a selection of African exports--Ghanaian grapefruit, Nigerian prints, Ugandan coffee--and a colorful leaflet explaining the wide range of products and services that Africa offers. Holding a portable mike she harangued the crowd. "Africa is being kept in a state of colonial subservience by capitalist donor fronts, the World Bank and the IMF. The same people who give them a useless pittance are holding them back from real prosperity..." Hundreds of TV News people, photographers and You Tubers walked by, but no one stopped. All eyes were on the Memorial where a troupe of A- list performers were entertaining the star struck crowd.
"Maybe this was not a good time, Leah," Edward, a free press advocate from Zimbabwe said gently. "Nobody wants controversy today."
"U2 ," someone shouted excitedly and the crowd surged forward for a better look.
At the top of the steps, Bono was being cheered on as he sang "Pride...In the name of Love", the song U2 wrote in honor of Martin Luther King.
"U2 is the problem, not the solution," Schildkraut shouted. She erased the "Trade not Aid" sign and hurriedly printed "BONO IS A HYPOCRITE" in black block letters.
"That is a little strong, Leah," said Miriam, an anti-slavery activist from Niger.
People paused for a moment, but then moved on as Schildkraut grabbed a hand mike. "Bono and Geldof and all the celebrity dilettantes present a distorted picture of Africa..."
A tall man in a colorful dashiki fixed her with a scornful look. "What do you know about Africa, lady?" And moved on before Schildkraut answered:
"Don't listen to me. Listen to Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda. He says that the celebrity charities offer 'a portrayal of Africans as unable to think, empty...' He says that Africa has been stripped of self-initiative...That giving money to governments makes them accountable to the donors, the World bank, the IMF, the celebrities and not their own people...He says that the billions donated to corrupt governments are used to pay off political allies and bolster police forces that maintain repressive rule."
Humanity flowed around them. Only one person stopped and watched in indignant disbelief. He was carrying a sign that read: U2 MEETUPS and identified himself as Efraim Durg, head of the Brooklyn chapter.
"Listen to Professor William Easterly," Schildkraut said. "He says that the typical African is a long way from being a starving AIDS victim at the mercy of child soldiers. He says that between 1/2 and 1 per cent of Africans died of AIDS in 2007. That only one out of 10,800 died as a result of armed conflict..."
"That's because people like Bono are making a difference," Durg said.
"Easterly says that in 2006 Sub-Saharan Africa registered its third straight year of GDP growth above 6%, better than most western countries," Schildkraut said. "Economist Michael Clemens says that Africa has expanded elementary school enrollment at more than twice the rate of western economies, which kept peasants and workers functionally illiterate for centuries..."
"No one is lis-ten-ing," Durg jeered.
Schildkraut climbed a chair and turned up her mike. "At a recent conference Mwenda, who was imprisoned twice in Uganda for criticizing the government, challenged the G8 countries to liberalize trade rules so African products could compete in the world market. 'Did any country ever become rich by holding out the begging bowl?' Mwenda asked...And Bono..." She gulped, speechless with rage.."Bono heckled him. Said what he was saying was 'bollocks.'"
Durg blinked in puzzlement. "What's bollocks?"
"Bono was angry because Mwenda was upstaging him," Schildkraut said.
"Oh yeah, can he sing?" Durg asked.
"Professor Easterly says he wonders if Africa is saving celebrity careers more than celebrities are saving Africa."
This was too much for Durg. "Bono runs himself ragged trying to raise money for poor, sick people and this is the thanks he gets...He gets billions of dollars of debts forgiven..."
"So the corrupt rulers don't have to repay money they used to buy limos, pay off cronies and strengthen their police forces," Schildkraut said. "And meanwhile the G8 is keeping African cotton, sugar and produce out of the world market..."
"Bono started the "Red" products campaign," Durg said.
"Which is a complete flop," Schildkraut said, her voice breaking. "After a $100 million marketing campaign only $18 million has been raised..."
"It's just getting started," Durg said.
"And it's the typical shallow consumerist meliorism that the Africans object to," Schildkraut scoffed. "Buy an iPod nano and provide 83 treatments to relieve the risk of AIDS transmission. Buy a billion nanos and wipe out AIDS. Buy a trillion and wipe out world poverty... Meanwhile, the nano is manufactured at factories in Longhua and Suzhou, China where the workers put in 15 hour days for $50 a month..."
"That's not Bono's fault," Durg said." He can't solve all the world's problems."
"Let him start with his own company, Elevation Partners," Schildkraut said. "They own a piece of Palm electronics, whose products are manufactured in Guanzhou, China by Casio where four thousand workers walked off the job in protest at low wages and poor conditions and the riot police were called in to force them back to work and 20 were injured. They own BioWare/Pandemic game producers whose components are manufactured by Atari at factories in Guangdong where workers are made to stand for hours at a time..."
"You couldn't afford any of those products if they were made in the US," Durg said.
Schildkraut sagged and stepped off the chair. "I know," she said. "I'm the contradiction. I'm the problem..."
"Look Leah, there's Stevie Wonder," Miriam said.
Durg pointed to Obama who was smiling benignly from behind a glass shield.
"You should try to lighten up," he said. "Today's a great day."
"I know," Schildkraut said. She gave him a bag of Good African Coffee. "Try this," she said. "It's really good."
Causes Heywood Gould Supports
Leukemia and Lymphomia Association
American Cancer Society
St. Jude's Children Research Hospital