Dublin, Ireland - Bono and I were both very busy this week in Dublin. U2 and he were back in their old hood in the north end for a set of three concerts, while I was at a three-day conference of 150 policy wonks trying to work up ways to feed the world when cheap oil runs out sometime soon.
The rocker and aid impresario Bob Geldof hope to "make poverty history" when they confront the G-8 next week in Edinburgh. But even if the leaders of the globe's wealthiest countries accept the songsters' proposals, Bono may find new meaning in "I still haven't found what I'm looking for."
That's because among the senior energy, food and enviro analysts at the meeting I'm attending here at University College, the consensus is that Bono and Geldof could become complicit in making poverty endure.
The duo promote three policies that could, Geldof says, fix Africa's problems "in 10 seconds." Cancel the interest-bloated debts to international bankers that cripple the finances of African governments. Raise foreign aid levels to .7 per cent of rich countries' GNP. End the subsidies and protections, especially in Europe, that discriminate against the African exports that could finance development through trade, not aid.
But, says England's Helena Norberg-Hodge, winner of the Right Livelihood Award, commonly recognized as the alternative movement's Nobel Prize, "At the very best, these proposals will likely increase African poverty."
Though it's not their intention, Bono and Geldof "actually serve the interests that are key to the globalization project that will keep Africa in its debt trap," she says.
It seems to make sense that more exports of products that take advantage of Africa's climate - coffee, cotton, sugar and cut flowers, for example - could provide badly needed help for a cash-starved economy. But think again, says Darrin Qualman, research director of Canada's National Farmers Union, a workshop leader at the Dublin conference.
"We're the poster children for export agriculture. Canada has succeeded brilliantly," he says. Farm exports jumped from just $10.9 billion in 1988, the year before the first free trade deal kicked in, to a whopping $28.2 billion just 14 years later. But "the result has been the worst farm income crisis in Canadian history since the 1930s Depression."
Food prices stayed flat despite overall inflation, resulting in a 24 percent drop in real income for farmers. In the same period, farm debt ballooned from $22.5 to $44.2 billion. And here's the kicker:all the new money from increased exports went to farm supply companies and bankers who covered farm purchases of tractors, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides and seeds - exactly the opposite of what developing countries need to get out of debt.
Farmers always get the wrong end of the stick in a free trade, high export economy, says Qualman. That's because everything that farmers sell is in competition with goods grown by up to 2 billion of the world's farmers, but everything farmers need comes from sectors dominated by three or four near-monopolies.
"The farm income crunch is caused by this imbalance of market power in the global food chain," says Qualman, and will have the same impact on Africa's chocolate, cotton and coffee producers as it did on Canada's grain, oil seed and meat producers.
Not that anyone in media or government will admit it, he says. "They can't say that power relations determine farm incomes, so they make up lies about inefficiencies, oversupply and subsidies. They can't bring themselves to say the system itself is broken."
If supporters of Africa understood this trajectory, says Qualman, "their issue would be the right to build barriers, not tear them down."
Annie Sugrue spoke to the meeting about her experience as head of a multimillion-dollar South African community economic development group, EcoCity. She scoffs at any suggestion that trade will help impoverished people in sub-Saharan Africa, where 46 per cent of the population survives on less than $1 a day.
"They're totally marginalized, outside the economy. It's complete rubbish to say they're going to be involved in trade," she says.
South Africa's clothing workers all lost their jobs to imports from China, says Sugrue. "If anyone wants to help Africa, they should cancel trade, not just the debt." European trade barriers to African food exports actually help the poor in Africa, she says, because they force local producers to grow for the local market. When that doesn't happen , as in Kenya, the best land goes to produce bargain-basement flowers for Europe instead of food for the home market.
An economy designed to overcome mass poverty and hunger must prioritize agriculture for domestic consumers, agrees Norberg-Hodge, who is director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture and an editor of the acclaimed mag The Ecologist. "Any solutions that create dependence on the global marketplace are not sustainable," she tells NOW.
Export agriculture inevitably leads to mechanized mass production of one crop, the only way to ensure the uniformity and low prices demanded in First World markets.
That's a surefire way of excluding small producers, who grow a diversity of traditional foods with low-cost hand tools.
The package deal of debt cancellation, increased aid and free trade for Africa is also promoted by British prime minister Tony Blair, U.S. president George Bush and the Anglo-American mass media.
It's time to face the music that this is not the company anyone should keep or the strategy anyone should support who wants to make African poverty a shame of the past.