Sir Bob Geldof: Sexiest man in philanthropy
With Bono, Brad Pitt and even Sir Richard Branson in the running, competition for the "sexiest man in philanthropy" is heating up. However, after my week at the annual conference of the International Association of Fundraising Professionals in San Diego, I’m placing my money on Sir Bob Geldof.
What you say, “An aging rock star whose last hit was over 25 years ago? Are you serious?” Yes, I am. As most of you know, as producer of the 1985 global Live Aid music concert brought international attention and over $200 million in direct relief to those facing poverty and starvation in Africa. That enough should get him inducted into the Philanthropy Hall of fame.
However, if you are like me, you probably didn't know that his entire life has been consumed by advocacy and philanthropic work. For example in 1965, at age thirteen, he formed the first anti-apartheid organization in his Irish community. In 2005, at age fifty-three, he produced the international Live 8 concerts, which resulted in multi-government pledges of $50 billion in annual debt relief and investment in Africa!
Rough shaven, greasy hair and wearing a rumpled suit, Geldof paced the San Diego Convention Center stage looking as if he had been up all night playing music. During his talk, he never strayed far from his humble Irish roots of growing up poor under the influence of the Catholic Church and British colonial rule. He shared plainly and directly his lessons learned to the 2,000 lucky fundraisers present.
According to Geldof, the practice of philanthropy is ubiquitous worldwide, but its purpose and practice varies. In the U.S., philanthropy is often sought to provide support for social change, while elsewhere its primary role is to provide for social stability. In the U.S., individuals are the largest source of giving, while elsewhere the government is the biggest giver. In the U.S., faith-based agencies receive the most donations; however, that is not the case elsewhere. In the U.K. for example, international relief agencies play a more dominant role. Finally, in the U.S., the ultimate target of philanthropy is usually individuals, which is not the case outside our borders. In China, the key role of charity is to strengthen the family. In Africa, its purpose is to strengthen the community.
Alexis de Tocqueville got it right over 150 years ago, says Geldof, when he recognized the unique use of American philanthropy to create social groups or “associations.” Geldof also challenged us to recognize that greed, guilt, vanity, pity and even cynicism, are also present under philanthropy’s thin veneer. Today, those with the least means give the highest percentage of their wealth. Yet, as income rises, individuals give less and less a percentage, until many simply reach a point where they say, “They don’t have enough to give anymore.”
Geldof reminded us that the western view of the individual as sovereign and universal comes from patriarchal Judeo-Christian teachings. He argued that much of the rest of the world simply doesn’t operate this way. In African, because of the traditional nomadic lifestyle, their society is founded on the principle of mobility. One could not survive alone as an individual; what they had, they shared. Today this collective ethos is still at the heart of African society. Western ideas of individual aid, development and philanthropy, simply do not work. One must go with the grain of the local culture in order to succeed.
North of the Straits of Gibraltar, food is subsidized in order to destroy it, while eight miles to the south millions starve. A European cow receives a $2.50 a day to be kept off the market, while in Africa the average person receives $0.50 a year to maintain subsistence living. What we call globalization, others call dying. Why are the most resource rich countries today populated with the world’s poorest people? We live in an asymmetrical world that is only becoming more so. Today one man with a bomb can stop the world.
Some progress is being made. The U.S. has actually quadrupled aid to Africa. Unfortunately, according to Geldof Bush cannot promote this success at home because it would result in lost votes and a political backlash. While Chinese, Indians and other are immigrating and making vast business investments in Africa, in the U.S. we have not seen this movement. Today Africa is the leading source of the world’s natural resources, China is the world’s major producer, and America is the number one consumer. Who do you think holds the real power in this equation?
Geldof stressed the most important lesson he has learned is that while direct charity is important, it can only do so much. One must also engage at the policy level in order to effect lasting change. While the Live Aid concerts reached out to individual donors, the primary goal of the Live 8 concerts was to create multi-governmental policy change. Where the first concerts raised $200 million in direct aid, the later as mentioned above, secured pledges of $50 billion in annual debt relief and investment in Africa.
Let’s take a minute to put these efforts into perspective. A movement started a little over two decades ago by one man has resulted in a continent of 350 million people being freed from debt slavery. No longer were they being asked to pay back money that had been lent before they were born to dictators who were no longer alive. Today over 29 million African children are going to school because of Sir Bob Geldof’s efforts.
If that isn’t sexy, I don’t know what is.