Episode 146: Bill Gates, Bono and the Limits of World Bank and IMF-Approved Celebrity 'Activism'

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"Feed the world." "We are the world." "Be a light to the world." Every few years, it seems, a new celebrity benefit appears. Chock full of A-listers and inspirational tag lines, it promises to tackle any number of the world’s large-scale problems, whether poverty, climate change, or disease prevention and eradication.

From Live Aid in the 1980s to Bono’s ONE Campaign of the early 2000s to the latest Global Citizen concerts, televised celebrity charity events, and their many associated NGOs, have enjoyed glowing media attention and a reputation as generally benign, even beloved, pieces of pop culture history. But behind the claims to end the world’s ills lies a cynical network of funding and influence from predatory financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, multinationals like Coca-Cola and Cargill, soft-power organs like USAID, and private “philanthropic” arms like the Gates Foundation.

This arrangement reached its high point at the turn of the 21st century and continues today, largely in response to outrage from anti-Pharma and anti-poverty activists from the global south and anti-globalization protesters in the 1990s. This Bono-Bill Gates-World Bank model has gained virtually unchallenged media coverage as the new face of slick, NGO "activism," in opposition to the unwieldy, anarchist-y and genuinely grassroots nature of the opposition it faced on America’s television screens each time there was a G7 or WTO meeting.

While this celebrity-NGO complex purports to reduce suffering in the Global South - almost always a monolithic and mysterious place called "Africa," to be more specific - suffering on a grand scale never meaningfully decreases. Rather, it adheres to a vague “We Must Do Something” form of liberal politics, identifying no perpetrators of or reasons for the world’s ills other than an abstract sense of corruption or "inaction."

Meanwhile, powerful Western interests, intellectual property regimes and corporate money - the primary drivers of global poverty - are not only ignored, but held up as the solution to the very problems they perpetuate.

On this episode, we study the advent of the celebrity benefit and the attendant Bono-Bill Gates-Global Citizen model of "activism," examining the dangers inherent in this approach and asking why the media aren't more skeptical of these high-profile PR events that loudly announce, with bleeding hearts the existence of billions of victims but are, mysteriously, unable to name a single victimizer.

Our guests are economic anthropologist Jason Hickel and Health Action International's Jaume Vidal.

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