Sunday, November 10, 2013

'Bono & Geldof are Cunts' by Jane Bussmann at UCL, 9th November 2013

She's right you know.  They are cunts.  Bono and Geldof would be cunts even if they'd never wrapped their arms around the big-eyed and bony starving people of Africa. They suffer from Messiah syndrome; pumped up to bursting point on their own importance, concluding that by the sheer force of their internal goodness they can heal the world.  By the time you're strutting across a Malian stage, maniacally whooping and throwing up peace signs as the local musicians exchange sidelong glances at each other you have inextricably plunged into the realm of cuntdom.  But the obvious counter-argument is "so what?". Cunts they may be, but how many irrigation ditches have we scratched through the African dirt lately?  

This is the crux of this show; a sometimes hilarious, sometimes depressing and always coldly furious analysis of the work of aid organisations in Africa.  Jane Bussmann isn't the first person you'd expect to carry out this vivisection.  She worked as a writer for The Fast Show, Brass Eye, South Park, Smack the Pony and Jam (among others), then moved to California, where she was sucked into a quicksand of fatuous celebrity gossip journalism.  Sent off to interview Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, she'd have to file a piece even if they never showed up.  As far as existential crises go, writing fictional interviews about practically fictional people is a pretty decent one..

There's only so much meaningless bullshit you can stack on someone's shoulders before their knees buckle and it all comes crashing down in a rancid heap.  So, in a Sam Beckett style quantum leap, she left ephemera and plonked herself down in Uganda.  Her brief was to profile US conflict negotiator John Prendergast, but by the time she'd hopped off the plane he'd sodded off elsewhere.  Stuck in a remote town in Uganda with no subject Bussmann figured that having been handed lemons, she may as well make lemonade.  So she decided to start investigating Joseph Kony, the Lord's Resistance Army and his kidnapping of child soldiers. Pretty tart lemonade.

This credit card will save Africa.
These experiences were chronicled in her book The Worst Date Ever, published in 2009. Now Bussmann, currently living in Mombasa, is using this experience as a springboard and decided to expose the corruption and hypocrisy of the aid industry.   Bono and Geldof are Cunts argues that the aid these agencies provide is not just mired in bureaucracy; not just applied in the wrong ways; not just having a short-term effect; but intrinsically bad those it's supposed to be helping.  This is a ballsy position and makes the bleeding heart Guardian supplement reading part of me instinctively recoil in horror.  "B-but, those starving kids I saw on that tube advert, they need just a pound to get a goat!  Just one pound!  And I have so many pounds!"  

Bussmann responds like a Hydra, a panoply of snapping, angry jaws tearing bloody chunks out of these arguments.  First for the chopping block is the paternalist notion that Africa is in need of "saving".  Western media loves to infantilise Africa, presenting us an image of an irresponsible, diseased and desperate place just that can't be trusted to govern itself.  We're shown lists of words those in the West associate with Africa and but for a few exceptions they're all "war", "disease", "famine" and so on.  That Africa can only exist with a constant infusion of aid transforms the continent into a patient on life support, unfit to stand on its own two feet.  

Conseqeuently her next argument is that, consciously or not, the aid agencies perpetuate the very problems they combat.  The example given is the response to the Rwandan genocide. As refugees flooded across the borders into refugee camps the aid agencies began to distribute food.  Unfortunately they failed to identify the huge number of killers among the refugees, so they were fed, watered and given salaries - using the camps as military training bases to get back on their feet.  This process became known as "feeding the killers", the food aid being withheld to punish the enemies of the leadership, reward supporters, distorting the numbers of refugees to get more food, and even forcing the refugees to pay a tax on their aid.  Anyone who spoke up against this structure or tried to explain to aid workers was subject to intimidation or even murder. Médecins Sans Frontières later stated "this humanitarian operation was a total ethical disaster" or more bluntly, a big ol' fuck up.

This example demonstrates that of blindly throwing money at a situation you don't fully understand is a very bad idea.  It's important to note that Bussmann isn't wholly opposed to charity, just to the self-aggrandising nature of monolithic aid companies.  She reserves specific venom for extravagant spending, pointing out that UNICEF workers travel business class, glugging down champagne and posh nuts as, hundreds of miles below, the people they're supposed to be helping continue to starve.  Stories are recounted of senior UN workers who happily profess that they "can't tell the difference between black people", of huge hardship allowances given to those suffering through the daily misery of life in a modern, cosmopolitan African city, of 'help wanted' notices for people to clean out their swimming pools  

Viewed in the harshest light, these huge aid organisations have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of Africa as a famine-ridden hellhole.  Bussmann points out that you don't see banks in African countries collapsing and societies collapsing into austerity, arguing that the continent is going through financial boom times.  Ultimately, her position is that Africa is a continent that requires investment rather than aid, that the perpetuation of a negative image discourages investment and this, in the long term, is harmful to African economic development and therefore harmful to the people.  The ideal conclusion would be self-sufficient, politically independent African countries free from the yoke of Western paternalism and fully able to solve their internal problems, whatever they may be.

I've got some reservations about the idea that the goal of African economic development should be an emulation of Western capitalism and it sends a shiver through my socialist soul to hear the establishment of a consumerist bourgeoisie espoused as a positive thing.  Like aid, foreign investment comes with its own shackles and a country at the mercy of the free market is existing in a questionable state of freedom.  There's a whiff of trickle-down economics theory too, Bussmann essentially arguing that the consequence of rich Africans buying luxury cars and building swanky apartment buildings means that those living in poverty will see their standards of living rise.  

At this point I should also point out that despite all the war crimes, economic theory and corruption this is a really funny show.  Bussmann's not afraid of heading to some fucking dark places, showing us her 'rapron' (an apron created by rape victims) and arguing that Geldof would have provided catering services to Auschwitz.  Bussmann's fury is such that, while the comedy is pitch-black, there were  portions of the show with little laughter. This show was the final performance at the One World Media Festival, and there were some stony, not-particularly-happy looking faces in the crowd.  I realised that some of the people she's railing against are more than likely likely to be in attendance  By way of an example, while waiting to get into the venue I was explaining what I'd heard about Bob Geldof tax arrangements only to be interrupted by Geldof's accountant's wife - who was anxious to set me straight about the tax payments of Sir Bob.

Bussmann's show shone a light on an unhappy hypocrisy here.  The walls were plastered with photos of unhappy Bangladeshi men standing in rivers full of poisoned fish, bodies plucked from collapsed factories and garbage piled up in slumtowns.  Meanwhile in London we're sipping on free ice-cold beer, placing us on the exact spectrum of charity-funded luxury that the show rails against.  So, the conclusion I took away with me was that intelligent, precise application of charity is helpful. But the vague, monolithic aid agencies' primary function is to pop a sticking plaster on wounded liberal hearts, administer a painkiller that washes away the guilt of Western privilege and give us a way for us to compartmentalise Africa as a unsolvable, intractable, neverending problem.

Bono and Geldof are responsible for the propagation of a stereotype of Africans as poor, dumb, hungry and violent - an infantilised global 'problem child'.  A continent in need of a white saviours to descend from the sky and solve their problems by the sheer grace of their presence.  For this, and much else, Bussmann is right - they are cunts.

'Bono & Geldof are Cunts' is at the Soho Theatre from Mon 18 - Sat 23 November, 7.30pm, tickets £15 (£12.50) available here.

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