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Sunday, June 26, 2005
Japan gets a life and finally drags its heels into Live 8
There used to be a common expression that money used to send men to the moon could better be spent on feeding people down here on Earth. As if in response, funding for space exploration was eventually cut and more money was channeled into so-called development aid, the ultimate aim of which, we were led to believe, was to end poverty in the world.
Men have not returned to the moon for many years and poverty has not only not been wiped out, it has become more widespread and more extreme. The piles of money that rich countries gave to poor countries to help them grow their economies usually ended up in the pockets of dictators or multinational companies, spurring cynicism rather than genuine development. As a result, most citizens of the developed world think that attempting to eradicate poverty is a noble but fruitless endeavor.
Changing this mindset is precisely the impetus behind a series of global campaigns that have emerged recently. The target of these campaigns is the leaders who will attend the G-8 summit in Scotland next month, and the most prominent event among them is the series of Live 8 concerts organized (or, more exactly, summoned into being) by Bob Geldof, the Irish rock star who became a full-time antipoverty crusader after he arranged the Live Aid concert in 1985.
Live Aid raised £140 million for African relief, but the money was immediately sucked up to pay debts. In other words, almost none of it went to poor people. Several years later, this sad fact impressed itself on Bono, another Irish rock star who participated in Live Aid, and led to his transformation into a global crusader with a more practical idea for exploiting his star power to end poverty.
"I realized that you can't affect the structure of poverty without politicians," he told the Yomiuri Shimbun two weeks ago. For more than a decade Bono has gone mano-a-mano with world leaders to convince them that they must address world poverty in a different way, by forgiving debt accumulated through years of nonproductive development loans, establishing fair trade practices, and providing aid for immediate needs such as food, medicine, and education.
Thus, Live 8 and related campaigns are not about raising money, but about raising awareness. If political solutions are the only solutions that can alleviate poverty in the long run, then people in the developed world must bring pressure to bear on their governments to pursue those solutions.
Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, who will host the summit, has made poverty the main theme of the conference. At the presummit meeting of finance ministers, France, Germany and Japan initially resisted Blair's call to forgive the debts of certain very poor countries, but eventually the two European nations relented. Bono and Geldof praised the announcement, overlooking the fact that the conditions attached may counteract any good accomplished by debt forgiveness.
Japan relented, too, but a representative of the Finance Ministry still felt it necessary to tell reporters that it will be difficult to "convince the Japanese people" of the merits of forgiving debt since "Africa is very far away from Japan."
Contrary to Bono's theory, this seems to indicate that it is the Japanese government who must convince the people to allow it to forgive debt. Since Japan's bureaucracy is famous for doing what it wants to do regardless of what the people or even their representatives might want, it's an odd comment.
At one time Japan was the biggest aid provider in the world, but ever since the prolonged economic downturn of the 1990s the government has gotten stingy and isn't thrilled about having to forgive all those yen loans. In 2001 Japan pledged a measly $200 million to fight AIDS in Africa, and when the foreign community complained it added another piddling $65 million. By 2003, Japan's aid to the continent had dropped 40 percent from its peak.
As Bono told the Yomiuri, the world "expects much more from Japan," since it is, after all, the second biggest economy in the world, accounting for 14 percent of the world's total GNP. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, bowing to this pressure, has recently promised a lot more.
As usual, that pressure has been exclusively from outside. If any country's citizens would seem to need the kind of awareness-raising that Geldof and Bono are promoting, it's Japan's. But getting to them is difficult.
In North America and Europe, a white wristband campaign has received lots of media attention because of the participation of several dozen high-profile celebrities and the support of Nelson Mandela. TV spots, which call attention to the fact that every three seconds one child dies in Africa from the effects of extreme poverty, are now being broadcast in the United States and England, but in Japan right now one can only see them in movie theaters showing "The Interpreter."
The Japanese branch of the campaign is called "Hottokenai" ("Don't Let It Be"; www.hottokenai.jp), which plans to release a similar video with Japanese celebrities this week, but initially only on the Internet. When asked which celebrities, Hottokenai said they wanted it to be a surprise.
Getting famous people to line up behind a cause is a bit more time-consuming in Japan. That's probably why the Tokyo concert for Live 8, which is scheduled for July 2, wasn't announced until last Friday. In fact, if Geldof hadn't said he hoped Tokyo would become a Live 8 city when he first talked about the concerts, there probably wouldn't have been a Tokyo concert. Japan sometimes needs to be reminded that it's down here on Earth with the rest of the world.