Between rock and a poor place

Are Bono and Bob Geldof actually doing any good? While the Irish rock stars have been lauded for tackling poverty, not everyone appreciates their efforts.

In the five-part documentary series Why Poverty?, economist Dambisa Moyo questions why celebrities are now the self-appointed spokespeople for Africa's poor. ''Why are we voting for African leaders,'' she asks, ''if their job has been abdicated to other people?''

Bosse Lindquist, the Swedish director of Give Us the Money, the episode that examines rock-star activism, understands this scepticism. ''It reflects the fact that a lot of charities are very superficial,'' he says, ''and a lot of rich people are professing to help others whose lives they don't really fathom.''

Indeed, Lindquist expected to find ''not much that was good or impressive'' about Bono and Geldof. Then he interviewed them - and was struck by their dedication. Both had spent years lobbying world leaders and drumming up public pressure to reduce African debt. Bono even studied economics to get a better grasp of the issues.

''There are well-ground reasons for cynicism of celebrity activism,'' Lindquist says, ''but Bono and Geldof actually helped reduce debt and raised billions in aid. They had a measurable impact on health and education … They've certainly been doing more than I have over the past 30 years to effect change.''

While each of the five episodes addresses a different issue - including the stark inequality of wealth in the US, how the wealth from Africa's natural resources ends up in the hands of so few, and the challenges children face when born in impoverished Cambodia and Sierra Leone - all ask the question: why does poverty still exist?

Of course, challenging the notion that poverty is inevitable raises some thorny moral predicaments, such as the use of trade sanctions to fight corruption. Bono and Geldof, meanwhile, drew fire for their willingness to deal directly with the corrupt leaders of Ethiopia. ''I think what they're saying is, 'What can you do?''' Lindquist says. ''If you want to effect change in Ethiopia, you have to deal with whoever is in charge. I'm not saying that one should agree or disagree with that proposition but it's a valid point.''

Yet it was public events such as the Make Poverty History concerts in 2006 that attracted the

most scorn, one newspaper dismissing attendees as ''fans who paid nothing to dance to their favourite bands while screaming at our governments … they got the wristbands, but taxpayers got the bill''.

Now, it's ''clicktivists'' - those who ''like'' a Facebook page or sign online petitions - who are subjects of derision.

''I'd always been suspicious of those campaigns because it feels so shallow to just press a button,'' Lindquist says. ''How much can that achieve? But then Bono and Bob Geldof tell me it can achieve a lot; that if you amass 12 million signatures, you can make an impression on politicians - and political pressure is important.''

Lindquist spent 18 months making his documentary, in which time he visited 12 countries. Far from being overwhelmed by what he saw, however, he feels positive.

''When I set out to make the film, I expected that my depressing opinions would be confirmed. Instead, I found there are efforts to reduce poverty that really do work.''

Why Poverty?

ABC2, Monday to Friday, 9.30pm

The story Between rock and a poor place first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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