Celebrity activists who campaign about development are often sneered at by development economists and by commentators; they are variously accused of ignorance, of exploiting a cause to further their own career, or even of wanting to perpetuate poverty to justify their own public profile.

Bob Geldof has given an extended interview on Development Drums about his work over three decades; you can judge for yourself if this criticism of celebrity activists is fair. (But beware: the language is colourfully and characteristically explicit in places.)  You can listen to the 35 minute version here, or listen to the entire extended interview.  Alternatively you can read the transcript.

Bob Geldof and Owen Barder

Geldof’s interview confirmed my impression that he is passionate, well-informed, and thoroughly decent. What’s more, I think he has done as much as anyone I know to make the world a better place.

I was living in Ethiopia in the early 1980s as the famine there unfolded; and I remember how Michael Buerk’s report on the BBC on 23 October 1984 brought it to the world’s attention. But that would have been just another news report without Bob Geldof  who (with Midge Ure) brought together a group of pop stars, called Band Aid, to record a charity single, Do They Know It’s Christmas? (It still makes me cry when I hear it.) The following year Geldof organised the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia. I believe these concerts and the surrounding publicity played a decisive role in mobilizing public opinion behind efforts not only to address the famine, but to find ways to make sure that nothing like this could ever happen again.

Bob Geldof in Ethiopia

Bob Geldof did more than raise money for a good cause.  In retrospect it seems extraordinary that a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher would send planes from the Royal Air Force to Ethiopia, then under a marxist military government, to deliver emergency food aid to remote parts of the country. I don’t believe this would have happened without the pressure of public opinion that Bob Geldof mobilised and to which he gave voice.

It seems to me that there is a direct thread connecting these events in the 1980s to the national consensus in Britain in support of a generous and effective development policy. It was this consensus on the need to do a better job of tackling global poverty which led to the establishment of the Department of International Development (DFID) in 1997 – which Tony Blair would later say was the greatest achievement of his government; it led to the cross party consensus on the need to protect the aid budget; and it culminated in the announcement in yesterday’s budget that Britain will this year meet the international target of spending 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid.  Geldof has remained engaged throughout, playing a key role in the Gleneagles summit in 2005, and in helping to shape Conservative Party policy on development in 2005.

I am not saying that Geldof was single-handedly responsible for Britain’s national support for development. There are many organisations and individuals who have contributed to this movement over the years, and they all deserve credit. But as you will hear in the podcast, Geldof deliberately played a particular role, agitating, mobilizing and disrupting in ways which helped capture the public imagination.

Geldof has more than his fair share of enemies. He is accused of misrepresenting Africa as a basket case, a continent of begging bowls. There have been insinuations – for which retractions and apologies were subsequently extracted – that the money raised by Band Aid was somehow used to support the civil war in Ethiopia. He has been accused of being a publicity-seeking celebrity, exploiting the misfortune of others.  I put all this to Geldof in the course of the interview, and he replies robustly. I find him convicincing and credible.

Geldof’s latest venture is a private equity firm, 8 miles, which makes investments exclusively in Africa. In the podcast he talks optimistically about the opportunities for investment in Africa, and the scale of the changes he is seeing. But he does not accept the suggestion that his campaigning, and the aid which he helped to raise, harmed Africa’s prospects for private investment and growth: on the contrary, he argues that they were, and remain, essential complements as Africa gets to its feet.

Whether you admire Bob Geldof or distrust him, if you are interested in what Band Aid and Live Aid achieved, and how celebrities have helped to build and sustain public interest in development, I hope you’ll listen to his interview on Development Drums. (Edited version | Full interview)

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