The poor will be with us always. And so, it seems, will the pop stars who plug in their guitars in hopes of subduing poverty and a host of other human miseries. Over the years, as they rocked, the fans gave: to Bangladesh, to African famine relief, to American farmers, to fight AIDS and apartheid, to end torture, to rebuild from calamities.
Funds were raised. Awareness was raised. People felt good (though it's somewhat painful now to see clips of Bono and the Edge sporting mullets at Live Aid 20 years ago). And maybe it all mattered.
Now Bob Geldof, the patron saint of cause-rock, is back, teamed with fellow big-hearted Irishman Bono and British screenwriter Richard Curtis ("Bridget Jones's Diary"), to promote Live 8, billed as the largest collective concert in history. Free shows commence tomorrow in 10 cities on four continents.
But send no money now: Geldof and company aren't working for charity but instead to goad the leaders of privileged nations into doing more to wipe out extreme poverty and disease in Africa. It's a campaign everyone can get behind -- who, after all, is happy that 30,000 kids die every day worldwide because of poverty? Celebrities can pour their hopes for a better world into the cause -- no more hunger, no more AIDS -- and also weigh in on the vital importance of African debt cancellation. (Debt relief: It's the new rain forest!)
MTV will give itself over to the occasion; AOL will stream everything live onto the Internet. Curtis's new HBO movie, "The Girl in the Cafe," will be on the air in 20 nations. It's a comic romance set, improbably, at a G-8 summit, where a persistent young woman hectors British leaders into making heroic proposals to help the world's poor: "We can't allow this casual holocaust to take place on our watch," says a character portraying Britain's chancellor of the exchequer.
The pop-culture campaigners are rallying around a slogan: "Make Poverty History." The push is on because next week, at a golf resort in Scotland, the most powerful leaders in the industrialized world will convene as the Group of Eight.
Live 8 organizers believe that intense celebrity summitry will help shape the agenda. "We're not [bleeping] around here," Sir Bob, who was knighted in 1985, said in an interview from London this week, during which he alternately lobbied President Bush ("Wouldn't it be amazing if America would rescue Africa?") and cursed skeptics who question whether anything will change after the final notes fade.
"We're not 'raising awareness,' '' he said defensively. "We're driving political policy. It's about writing and implementing political policy toward the poorest people in the world."
As for naysayers: "They can say what they [bleeping] like, it's working. Nay away into the wilderness! It's to accept the culture of defeat."
Many consumers of mass culture -- say, the kids flocking to Philly to hear Destiny's Child or Linkin Park -- won't know, or care, that the G-8 is a tedious affair where Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and heads of state from Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Japan and Canada will debate debt relief, foreign aid, trade policy and suchlike. The scripts for summits are generally written in advance, say those who've attended.
We know Bush's position going in: "New resources are not enough," he said yesterday in a speech on Africa. "Our greatest challenge is to get beyond empty symbolism and discredited policies, and match our good intentions with good results. . . . Economic aid that expects little will achieve little."
The president also said: "Under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has reduced barriers to trade, U.S. exports to sub-Sahara Africa increased 25 percent last year. And America's imports from AGOA countries rose 88 percent. Now we must take the next large step: expanding the entire global trading system through the Doha negotiations."
That's the problem: "G-8 summits are mind-numbingly boring," Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, reminded an audience of diplomats and foreign-policy wonks who turned out for a Washington screening of "The Girl in the Cafe" last week. "Nothing happens at them by and large."
But what's not to like about a weekend mega-tunefest featuring performances by Madonna, Elton John, U2, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, R.E.M., Coldplay, Bjork, Sting, Dido, Justin Timberlake, Green Day, Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Celine Dion, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill -- and so on?
"It will be unbelievably great," Geldof promised. "You will never see a concert like this again."
More than a million fans are expected to attend the shows in Philadelphia and London -- sites of the original Live Aid concerts -- and in Paris, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Toronto and Cornwall. The stage also is set for a gigantic teach-in of sorts through Web sites and the requisite impassioned cheerleading by Hollywood stars -- among them Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Will Smith, Natalie Portman and Salma Hayek. Wednesday brings a final Live 8 concert in Edinburgh and a "Long March to Justice" to Gleneagles, the resort where the G-8 summiteers are convening.
Screenwriter Curtis -- who, like Geldof and Bono, has done charity work for years -- doesn't pretend that celebrity equals expertise. "Politicians are meant to deal with very complicated issues and find solutions," he says. "The fact that pop stars don't understand all the details does not mean they can't have a strong opinion."
Or, as Danny McNamara, singer for the U.K. indie band Embrace, put it: "Why leave it to the politicians? I can assure you that some of the finest minds of our generation have never been near a suit and tie."
No skeptic is sour enough to say that the event is a waste of time, but there's one central criticism: Live 8 fans are not expected to donate directly for African relief. Instead, they're supposed to join a larger movement for global economic justice and take action: sign petitions at MakePovertyHistory.com and other Web sites, buy wristbands, e-mail politicians, upload their faces onto a "G-8 Gallery" and eventually vote out the leaders who don't push anti-poverty items to the top of the agenda. "We don't want your money -- we want you!" declares Live8Live.com.
"It's rather disappointing that Sir Bob Geldof is not firing all of the cylinders in his revolver. He's only firing one bullet -- political lobbying," says John Kirton, a G-8 expert who teaches at the University of Toronto. "They've forgotten that direct giving worked in 1985. And the tsunami showed that people gave and governments followed. . . . Africa needs the money right now."
Those who have confronted Africa's entrenched problems (internecine slaughter and kleptocracy among them) are realists. "If there was a magic wand, we would not be looking at so much poverty," says Henry Bienen, who has worked with the World Bank and U.S. AID and is now president of Northwestern University. "It's going to be very difficult to deal with long-run development problems -- by definition they are long-run. Just putting money in has not proved to be very effective."
And Live 8's impact? "Some people do get engaged in politics by going to concerts -- people who will stay on," he says. "But I think 95 percent of them will fall away."
Then there's the possibility that maybe, just maybe, some performers have scrambled aboard the Live 8 bandwagon for publicity. "If you think that is people's main motivations, then I pity you," retorts Embrace's McNamara, who will take the stage Wednesday in Edinburgh with other Brit faves, including Travis and Snow Patrol.
True, Live 8 provides massive promotion for bands: "You can't do something to raise awareness and not be part of that raised awareness yourself," he says. "Unless you go onstage with a mask on."
Beyond the sweaty clamor of the rock concerts, major charities and religious groups also are putting pressure on the G-8 leaders. U.S. evangelicals, a vital part of President Bush's base, are more engaged than ever on Africa. Why, just last week we saw the Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, pushing the campaign on "Nightline," in solidarity with known Hollywood liberal George Clooney.
"The church has a heart for Africa, and this year is an extraordinary opportunity to make decisions that will make it possible for Africans to overcome poverty, hunger and diseases," says Bread for the World President David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister who was part of an ecumenical delegation that visited the White House this week, then flew to London to meet with British counterparts.
This is a moment "of grace," he says. "This is of God."
But the affairs of mankind tend toward imperfection. Make poverty history? Everyone knows it would take a miracle.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, far left, with Live 8 organizer Bob Geldof at an MTV forum on the G-8 agenda. Blair is chairing next week's summit.
About 5,000 marchers display a banner with Live 8's slogan at a rally in Dublin billed as a precursor to the concerts in 10 cities.
Live 8 organizers Bob Geldof, left, and Richard Curtis announcing plans in May.