Managing Compassion

by Garth Pritchard, July 6, 2005

There's one absolute: Star Power is the answer when you want to bring attention to a world issue.

Live 8 proved beyond a doubt that, if asked, the young people of the world would come together on an issue such as poverty in Africa.

As a journalist, I have lived through two of Sir Geldof's promises to have the greatest concerts ever.

The first one, 25 years ago, Live Aid, realized $100 Million in aid to be spent in impoverished Africa. Countries delivered on their promises - some even cancelled debts owed to them by African countries.

Now, Sir Geldof's quest is for the governments of the world to forgive debt in the $25-Billion U.S. category.

The money poured into Africa to stop poverty is staggering. The world has tried numerous times. But when you see the list of who gets what and how much, there is an enormous question that needs to be asked: Where does all the money go?

The brilliance of "We don't want your money, we just want your support" is evident. The stars don't want to answer that big question. They can't. They've been down the road before - 25 years ago with Live Aid - the governments of Africa benefited, but very little of the money arrived for the people for whom it was intended.

I suspect the same will hold true now.

Oh, we all felt good. But in fact, the money went into the same black hole it always does.

Let's try the United Nations. A few nights ago, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) found a ranking member of the UN to rail at Canadians - how little we put in - gross national product, percentages - all neatly quoted. Blaming Canadians for not doing enough.

It's been my sad experience that the UN eats humanitarian aid. A little example: six hundred tractor trailer loads of humanitarian aid hidden in Bosnia. It was neatly being circled through the system time and again. Flown into Sarajevo, trucked out - never given to the people. Trucked back to the coast of Croatia - shipped across the Adriatic Sea, back to Italy, back into the UN system and back to Bosnia. All of this bought and paid for many times - the first time by donations from a concerned world. The second time, by those same concerned societies. And the next time, and the next.

The Oil for Food program was another UN boondoggle. We will never know how many billions disappeared, but we do know that very little food actually reached the people.

My experiences in Africa are exactly the same. Tens of billions of dollars gone down a black hole. I've seen the so-called humanitarian aid people driving around in their brand new SUVs ($125,000 U.S. per copy). It's apparent that you are a nobody in the aid world unless you have one of these vehicles - and, by the way, for some unknown reason each vehicle comes equipped with a $40,000 U.S. international radio system, and a paid driver.

In Kosovo, it was just as out of control. Within days of NATO's invasion, we counted hundreds of these vehicles all over the country. Flying into Sarajevo in the latter years of the war, we saw hundreds of them parked at the airport.

This is exactly what's happening all over Africa.

Not long ago, in the Ampara district of Sri Lanka, I listened to a conversation between professional aid representatives of Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The discussion was about where they had been around the world and the huge contracts they had. It seemed necessary to these Canadians to compare how many servants they had. "Five" said one. "But that's because where our last contract was, there's a caste system and we had to hire a person just to sweep the driveway, you know."

Consider this: as the people of Africa become aware of the huge amounts of money that supposedly have been collected on their behalf, they'll also recognize that their villages, their communities and their countries see very little of it. They'll understand that the people of the world have collected money for them, but they won't understand why we haven't given it to them.

Do you believe for one second that they are going to be our friends?

We are creating the Afghanistans and Iraqs of the future. People hate us. We flaunt our opulence, our lifestyle and our democracies. We have beautiful concerts around the world on their behalf. But their lives have not changed. Their babies are still dying of diarrhea, starvation and disease.

This time "We don't want your money" will not get the stars off the hook. Somebody has got to take the responsibility of getting these huge amounts of money to the people who so sorely need it in Africa.

This issue rears its head all over the planet earth as Sir Geldof uses technology to get on television and lay guilt trips on societies. He ranted at Canada's prime minister, "You are not welcome in Scotland for the G-8 conference if you don't open your chequebook."

The pictures of starving children will not unite people very much longer. The people who are not getting the aid will hate us. A recent example: $450 Million was collected in Canada for victims of the December 26 tsunami. Six months later the money has not arrived. It is held somewhere in the bureaucracies and aid agencies. It didn't get to the victims so far, so who has it?

In my travels around the world as a documentary film-maker over the years, I encountered a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka this January. I was accosted daily by the people who had lost everything to a tsunami. They would grab at my pockets and demand the money that they believed had been collected for them.

"Where is the money?" they demanded. "We know you have it. Our government, our televisions, our radios have said that the world has given billions of dollars for us. Where is it?"

People are angry with us for our perceived lies, and very quickly, the people of Africa will be too.

In the next few months this very issue will raise its ugly head in Africa. Where will the stars who performed so brilliantly in Live 8 be then? Will Bono or Sir Geldof have the answers? Will they have the money? And just how are they going to get it to the people who will be asking this simple question?

I've been in countries where 25 cents a day would be a huge salary.

I watched in despair recently while an 11-year-old boy pleaded with Canadian military doctors to fix his badly cut hand so that he could return to work - that day. You see, he worked all day long in a brutally hot rice field, cutting the rice stalks with a hand scythe. No work meant no money. The pittance he was paid was what kept food on his family's table. His dad had died in the tsunami. The little money he could earn was all they had.

Canadians, private citizens of all ages, gave money to help Sri Lankans -- the last figure was $80 Million of real money - money from church congregations, schools and children's piggybanks.

Somehow, CIDA ended up with not only this $80 Million, but also a guarantee from the government bringing the grand total to $450 Million. Since then, nothing but smoke and mirrors from the Canadian International Development Agency. As of 10 days ago, the local padre in the Ampara district of Sri Lanka reported that none of the Canadian money had arrived.

It's not as though the world has ignored Africa before this. According to the last figures, for the four year period of 2000 - 2003, the net aid to Africa, from all donors, was $15,717 MILLION U.S.

The media are having a field day with figures. Twenty five Billion seems to be the magic figure.

Where is it? If history repeats itself, it certainly will not get to the people who are in such desperate need in Africa.

Despite our good intentions, our bureaucracies and aid agencies are leaving a legacy of unkept promises around the world. The hate for the western world is increasing.

Have we forgotten Somalia, where the last Coalition tank backed down the runway of Mogadishu with its guns pointed at the very people the world was there to help?

Unless we learn the lessons of past experience, Live 8 could very well trigger unprecedented conflict in the global society.

Canada Free Press columnist Garth Prtitchard, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker living in Alberta.


Posted July 7, 2005