Thursday, June 30, 2005

Critics began pecking away at Sir Bob Geldof’s latest philanthropic burlesque, tomorrow’s simultaneous worldwide concerts known collectively as Live 8, as soon the old Boomtown Rat made it official.

Complaint No. 1, lodged by African music enthusiast Peter Gabriel and others, was that for an effort to impress G8 world leaders at their summit Wednesday about the severity of poverty on the African continent, the Live 8 lineup looked awfully short on actual African-based acts.

Mr. Geldof argued, reasonably, that Live 8’s mission was to maximize attention on global poverty, not showcase obscure indigenous talent. But eventually he relented. Organizers added a concert in southwest England featuring African musicians, bringing the total number of concerts to 10.

Another gripe came from Hamptons humanitarian Bianca Jagger, who worried about a “club of mutual admiration” between Mr. Geldof and U2 frontman Bono that might seep into the public consciousness in the form of self-satisfaction. “I am concerned that after the aid concerts and the G8 meeting, the public will be left with the impression that we have gone a long way, we will feel wonderful and believe we have done our bit,” she told London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

Most stinging of all, perhaps, is the charge of ineffectuality. According to one poll, just 16 percent of Britons thought Live 8 would make a significant difference in alleviating world poverty.

Speaking for the skeptical 84 percent, Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher scoffed that the whole thing was a waste of time. He questioned whether rock stars hold as much sway as they think: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but are they hoping that one of these guys from the G8 is on a quick 15-minute break at [Scotland summit venue] Gleneagles and sees Annie Lennox singing ‘Sweet Dreams’ and thinks ‘She might have a point there, you know?’ ”

Taken together, all this caviling might point to a common feeling. Call it “benefit fatigue.”

Sure, millions of people will flock to the concerts themselves; they feature some of the biggest acts in the world, and tickets are free. But benefit concerts generally — even ones that are grandiosely synchronized across the globe like New Year’s Eve celebrations — just don’t have the impact they had 20 years ago, when Mr. Geldof staged the original transatlantic Live Aid benefit.

Then, such a large-scale effort, a rarity in those days, communicated a singular urgency. Now — awash as we are in benefit shows for family farms, Asian tsunami victims, autistic children, flood victims in Pittsburgh, the SARS-stricken city of Toronto and myriad other causes — Live 8 is a ho-hum affair.

Part of the problem is that while Live 8 looks like a benefit concert and walks like a benefit concert, none of the shows technically is a benefit concert.

Conceived by Mr. Geldof, Bono and screenwriter Richard Curtis, the Live 8 concerts won’t directly raise a single dime for Africa. They’re designed, rather, to “raise awareness.”

OK. Show of hands: Who’s unaware that Africa doesn’t work?

Live Aid raised $200 million for a very specific cause, Ethiopian famine relief. Twenty years later, the country is still crippled by the same problems — underdevelopment, corruption, hunger.

Live 8 is pegged amorphously to a confab of government leaders.

Show of hands: How many know what the Group of 8 is, or does?

Mr. Geldof and company may argue that it doesn’t matter how recognizable the G8 is; G8 leaders know who they are and what they do, and they’ll hear the voices of celebrities, as amplified by millions of fans. But exactly how is the sight of thousands cheering, say, the reunited Pink Floyd in London or Bjork in Tokyo supposed to translate magically into precise political pressure four days after the music ends?

No money will exchange hands. No foodstuffs will be shipped.

The strict no-charge policy for tickets — Mr. Geldof had a cow when he found out online auction service EBay was hosting sales of tickets — has caused practical headaches for concert organizers, who have had to cobble together budgets based on prospective T-shirt and concession sales, TV and radio broadcasting money and freebies from companies such as WestJet, which will provide 200 airline tickets to performers and crews at the concert in Barrie, Canada.

The best-case scenario for Live 8 is that it will, indeed, convince the governments of wealthy countries to forgive African debt and commit long-term aid to African countries. This scenario is complicated by wonky concerns about feckless African governments and the need for political reform.

Here we arrive at the heart of Live 8’s problem. Benefit concerts are useful tools for problems with obvious causes and measurable solutions, such as helping flood victims build new homes or raising money for disease research. The further a benefit concert drifts from the concrete — the 2003 concert to reassure tourists that Toronto was over its SARS sickness was well on its way to abstraction — the less useful it will be.

Rock stars can’t solve a problem as big as African poverty.

It’s far from clear that even governments can.

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