Last night, PBS ran an episode of the Vicar of Dibley, a wonderful British sitcom about a female vicar and the eccentric inhabitants of the tiny village she serves, in which the One Campaign was featured.
For background, the One Campaign is the campaign to fight AIDS and poverty that has been promoted most heavily by celebrities like Brad Pitt and Bono. It seeks to increase U.S. donations to "Official Development Assistance" by 1% of our national budget. Click the title of this post to go to the One Campaign website.
Towards the end of the episode, the Vicar is trying to get people to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Live Aid by wearing the white One Campaign wristbands and writing letters to Tony Blair. The villagers, gathered in the Vicar's house, are hesitant and wonder what could be accomplished by wearing the wristbands.
The Vicar suggests looking at the One Campaign website, where she finds a video link titled "hesitant about wearing the wristbands?" She clicks on the link, and the camera zooms in on the vicar's laptop playing a video of two African children crying about their mother who had died of AIDS and their father who is dying of AIDS. They live in misery and have no way of taking care of themselves. The video ends with the subtitle that their father died shortly after it was filmed.
The camera zooms back out to show everyone, even the stodgy conservative government representative, wearing white armbands and wristbands. It is a very touching scene.
But it doesn't quite answer the question, does it? Who am I helping by wearing a white rubber wristband? If enough people wear wristbands, are the G8 leaders suddenly going to wake up and do something real about African poverty and the AIDS pandemic? How many rock concerts need to be held for that magic moment to be reached when George Bush finally grows a conscience?
I hate to be cynical about this whole thing, but I'm just really not that inspired by Brad Pitt wearing a designer camouflage shirt at Live 8 telling me about poverty in Africa. If he wanted to do something about it, he could donate all of the proceeds from his next film to the project, or to Medicins Sans Frontiers, or Oxfam, or Amnesty International. That would impress me. But standing on a stage with a bunch of rich rock stars telling people to go care about poverty? I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it.
The singular problem of poverty in Africa is that it is a political and an economic problem, and the two are interrelated. We can throw money at Africa and feel good about ourselves, but if that money is intercepted by corrupt governments, then it's not going to help anyone. That was the problem with Live Aid. We can give people breaks on the cost of drugs to fight AIDS, but if those people have no money at all, then we won't help them by cutting the price.
I don't know what the solution is to the African poverty crisis and the AIDS pandemic. But it seems to me that making a whole lot of wristbands and commercials with celebrities in them isn't going to do the trick. It seems to me like a more fundamental change is needed, one that recognizes that the health of the world should not be in the hands of for-profit pharmaceutical companies, that transforming corrupt governments requires internal change that cannot be forced from the outside, and that the hyper-rich celebrities who crow about poverty need to start digging into their own wallets a little bit deeper before they ask the working and middle classes to open up our wallets.