In 1984, like many, I applauded loudly when Bob Geldof took up the fight against hunger in Ethiopia. It was extraordinary then for a pop singer to be taken seriously on anything apart from stage performance. Sir Bob's Boomtown Rats songs were spectacularly different anyway, and were loved by as many as loathed them. The adverse publicity of stories about bottled dead rats (whether or not they were true) having been sent to generate publicity startled the urbane world.
But in recent times, Geldof and Bono have been most sought after pillars and every G8 politician has craned to be photographed with them. Then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill quipped that his grandchildren were mighty impressed by him being able to travel with Bono. Thus they have become the centerpiece of the effort to ensure sufficient resources for development assistance, and have been amazingly successful, translating their fame into compassionate advocacy for the poor.
But the cracks from even then were visible. The beautiful song "Do They Know It's Christmas" emphasized the lack of knowledge about the specifics of an overwhelmingly Christian Ethiopia, where my late Uncle had served as a Professor in a Christian Seminary since the early 1960s for many years. And since then, the failure to address the levers of assistance may be at the heart of why the refrain has been the same then and now -- too many billions of people being forced to live on $2 a day and the numbers of people in such circumstances have only increased, partly with the force of demography.
While campaigning for greater support for the poor, it is essential to also examine the history of what has happened, at least to avoid repeating the mistakes. True, the funding for HIV/AIDS increased dramatically in the new Millennium. But why was it that over a decade went by while bets were placed solely on vaccine development against the HIV virus, a highly mutating organism, while preventive programs that worked in the US to slow the growth of the epidemic even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, long before the advent of antriretrovirals, could have been replicated in the developing world, with local knowledge? Meanwhile, millions got infected, a virtual death sentence then. And why is that same neglect taking place in other chronic diseases today?
An essential core of this recurrent problem is that every head of the World Bank, for instance, has been selected or reappointed by a US President, and none of them has ever lived, worked, or even studied in the developing world beyond active tourism. The next President of the World Bank is to be selected in 2012. But there is no process in place to have an open competition. The World Bank's Board rubber-stamped Paul Wolfowitz into office, after all.
Leading lights of the aid movement, such as Geldof, Bono, Sachs and Easterly continue to bicker with politicians like Berlusconi and amongst themselves (see here and here and here) without apparently taking a visible role in reform of the levers of assistance. If another 25 years went by and yet another Irish pop singer had to step up to repeat the same messages of 1984 and 2009, then the inaction on institutional reform would have done great disservice to all.
They might argue that they have no voice on the inner workings of multilateral (or bilateral) institutions and that the institutions' privileges and immunities prevent their involvement in any serious way. And that is precisely the message that is also needed, not just castigating politicians who are easy game anyway. The harder and equally essential task is to ensure genuine change and reform. Otherwise, their voices risk getting drowned out amidst aid fatigue and the seemingly repetitive drumbeat.