Making Poverty History

By Hopkins, A. G. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Making Poverty History

Hopkins, A. G., The International Journal of African Historical Studies

MAKING POVERTY HISTORY Labour, Land, and Capital in Ghana: From Slavery to Free Labour in Asante, 1807-1956. By Gareth Austin. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2005. Rochester Studies in Africa and the Diaspora. Pp. xxiv, 598; maps, plates, and tables. $75.00.

Live8 and G8

Bob Geldof's campaign to "Make Poverty History" reached a crescendo in July 2005, when Live8, the biggest rock concert in history, was held with the aim of influencing the G8 meeting in nearby Gleneagles. The idea was to raise voices rather than money for Africa: the sound, so it was reported, was deafening. Did the hard of hearing listen? It seems likely that the politicians responded with declarations and promises that were in excess of those that would otherwise have been made. But what matters, always assuming that the adopted policies are the appropriate ones, is whether they are acted on when the noise dies away. On this crucial issue no judgment can as yet be made.1

However, other significant dimensions of Live8 can be assessed. It was (and still is, if the organizers have their way) a mass movement dedicated to ending injustice done to others. In this respect, Live8 is an ideological and organizational descendent of the campaign in Britain to abolish the slave trade and slavery. Like the abolitionist movement, Live8 is a broad coalition held together by a single issue. In both cases, too, the issue lay abroad and involved no potentially divisive attack on the status quo at home. We now know that the abolitionist cause was also a popular one that involved men and women across regions and social classes. Today the scale is different because the technology available in the current, postcolonial phase of globalization has enabled Live8 to reach many more millions across the whole world. But the essential purpose remains, even though one organization mobilized an emerging national moral sensibility while the other draws on and also helps to create a new global civic consciousness. Both campaigns operated within, as well as outside, the established power structure. Wilberforce, like Geldof, counted a prime minister as a friend, moved easily in the corridors of power, and was an able publicist. For all the differences between them, the two advocates have in common the moral radicalism of privilege. This quality is not easily corrupted by material rewards. The hazards lie elsewhere: in the risk of being compromised by the forces they seek to influence, and in the danger of succumbing to what might be called philanthropy fatigue.

There is also a connection between Live8 and academic purpose. When Bono writes a Foreword to Jeffrey Sachs's The End of Poverty (2005) and Geldof is quoted approvingly on the front cover of the Commission for Africa's Our Common Interest (2005), it is surely time for scribes and specialists to sit up and take notice. It is not that the role of scholars is being usurped, though it might be argued that the public intellectuals of yesteryear, such as Einstein and Russell, have no counterparts of comparable stature today. But even economists, who are particularly closely involved with development issues, have rarely had starring roles in publicity campaigns of this kind, while historians are habitually seen, when seen at all, as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the higher social sciences. What has happened is that the rules of the game have changed. Injustice remains, but the means of advertising it have been transformed by the rise to prominence and power of the new aristocracy of the media, which in turn has been made possible by the transformation of the means of communication and the consequent shrinkage of the world.

The response to these developments, as I see it, should not be to regret the loss of academic innocence or to disdain the vulgarities that accompany popularization but to react positively to the opportunities they present. As far as historians are concerned, the huge and very visible publicity now being given to the plight of Africans in their own continent poses a challenge that ought to capture the imagination and engage the expertise of the next generation of researchers, as it has been very largely bypassed by the last one. …

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