nettime's_roving_reporter on Sat, 16 Oct 1999 21:54:45 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> More on NetAid

The Concerts Were Meant to Fight Poverty. Now, Organizers Fight One
Another Amid Charges of Commercialism.

     By Colum Lynch and Paul Farhi
     Washington Post
     October 8, 1999

UNITED NATIONS It is supposed to be the feel-good event of the fall, a
melding of music, technology and anti-poverty activism. Tomorrow, millions
around the world will watch pop stars such as David Bowie, Bono and Puff
Daddy perform in London, Geneva and New Jersey for NetAid, a
U.N.-sponsored effort to engage wealthy Westerners in the hardships of the
developing world. 

The concerts will be carried live on MTV, VH1, the BBC and other
broadcasters to 60 countries; radio broadcasts will reach 120 nations,
potentially making these the widest-heard musical performances in history. 
The shows will promote NetAid's Web site, which will serve as a kind of
clearinghouse for donors and organizations dedicated to relieving hunger
and eradicating poverty. 

But even before the first chords are struck, the novel charitable alliance
is caught up in controversy, deflecting charges of self-interest.  Harry
Belafonte, the actor and musician who helped organize the event, said he
and actor Danny Glover were quitting in disgust. The event, he said, had
"been reduced to a trade show" promoting the U.N. bureaucracy and a
corporate sponsor, Cisco Systems Inc. 

U.N. sources said that in his letter of resignation, Belafonte also
complained that proceeds would be funneled back into the U.N. Development
Program and Cisco before money reached the world's poor. 

"When you deal with the flesh and the blood that makes up the hungry and
disenfranchised of this world, you must play in a field of trust," 
Belafonte said in an interview. "I find that sacred ground. There
shouldn't be any cynicism or agendas." 

NetAid is the brainchild of a Cisco executive, Diane Merrick, who last
year began considering ideas for an attention-getting stunt for her
company, based in San Jose, Calif. To promote Cisco, which makes the
routing and switching equipment that is the Internet's plumbing, Merrick
considered staging an event that would be accessible to millions online. 

Among other ideas, she thought about using the Internet to "stream"  live
video of a fashion show or the worldwide premiere of a Steven Spielberg
film. The company particularly wanted to generate attention during Telecom
'99, a huge trade show being held this week in Geneva (one of the NetAid
concerts will emanate from Geneva, with an audience specially invited by

"We were really looking for a way to demonstrate the power of the Internet
outside the business realm," Merrick said. "Business has already embraced
the Internet. What we wanted to do was give everyone else a glimpse of the

Casting about for a more populist vehicle, Cisco eventually contacted
music promoter Ken Kragen, who had organized the Hands Across America
event in 1986 and the "We Are the World" benefit for famine relief in
1985. By coincidence, Kragen had received a call a week earlier from
Belafonte, who wanted Kragen's help in producing an event to mark the
United Nations' World Poverty Week, also scheduled at the same time as
Telecom '99. 

"It was just serendipity," said Kragen. "There was something magical
about" the coincidental timing of the U.N. event and the business
conference. The company and Belafonte soon began discussion to merge their

Belafonte, who was active in the civil rights movement, was asked last
year by the United Nations to harness the drawing power of the pop music
and film elite in the cause of fighting global poverty. Backed by Cisco's
initial commitment of $3 million, he recruited Glover, former South
African president Nelson Mandela and U2's Bono, who has advocated that
wealthy nations forgive the debts of impoverished countries. 

But by August, less than two months before the concerts, Belafonte began
privately criticizing the organizing effort. Specifically, he is upset
about the makeup of the board overseeing the NetAid foundation, which is
dominated by U.N. officials and corporate executives. He is also critical
of an arrangement whereby Cisco will be reimbursed about $5 million from
NetAid concert ticket receipts and broadcast rights fees. The company made
cash advances to reserve Giants Stadium in New Jersey and Wembley Stadium
in London for the shows. 

Cisco also has donated $10 million to the NetAid Foundation and
contributed roughly $10 million to $12 million more in services, time and
equipment, according to the company. Cisco says that none of this will be

U.N. officials and NetAid organizers said the reimbursement arrangement is
standard practice. They characterized the dispute as driven by oversize
egos and a conflict over leadership of the event, not financial
impropriety. They said Belafonte lashed out because he could not exercise
absolute control over a project that has grown dramatically in scope and
political importance since its inception. 

Organizers also noted that NetAid has continued to attract endorsements
and involvement from political figures and celebrities. In September,
President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mandela were the
first to log on to the NetAid Web site ( The event has
also had no trouble attracting performers such as Sheryl Crow, George
Michael and Mary J. Blige.

The departures, nevertheless, could prove embarrassing for the United
Nations, which has gingerly begun to seek alliances with corporate
sponsors to help fill the funding gap caused by shrinking contributions
from wealthy governments. NetAid represents the first major collaboration
between the United Nations and a private corporation to tackle a specific
global problem. 

In addition to Cisco, the consulting firm KMPG and the computer company
Akamai Technologies have been involved in setting up the Internet site.
Several of the aid organizations have links on the NetAid site, which also
carries links to the home pages of Cisco, Akamai and KMPG. 

"The point is not to raise money from the concerts; the point is to build
a constituency of activists for development" through the Internet, said
UNDP Director Mark Malloch Brown. 

The NetAid Web site also attempts to dramatize the gulf between
industrialized nations and the developing world It offers implicit and
sometimes overt critiques of Western lifestyles. Visitors to the site are
likely to learn that "the richest 20 percent of the world's people eat 11
times as much meat and seven times as much fish as the poorest 20
percent,"  as well as the following: "In the minute it will take you to
read this, 13 children will have died in the world's poorest countries.
Each day, the rich West gets $35 million in debt repayments from the
poorest nations in Africa. . . . Debt can kill." 

The site avoids much discussion of corruption, waste, ethnic warfare,
governmental oppression, political strife or cultural practices that
impede progress in developing countries. 

Cisco says the NetAid Web site will be the most powerful in the world,
capable of handling 60 million "hits" every hour or up to 125,000
simultaneous video "streams" of the concert. 

Both U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Malloch Brown have met with
Belafonte to try to address his concerns.

According to the sponsors, the net proceeds from sales of concert
tickets--which cost from $30 to $75--will go to poverty relief programs in
Africa, Kosovo and elsewhere. Additional funds collected from private
donations made over the Internet will go to a variety of programs,
including hunger relief projects and refugee resettlement programs,
officials said. 

Malloch Brown said Belafonte had proposed to distribute the money
throughout the U.N. system. Malloch Brown argued in favor of creating a
nine-member panel, composed of representatives of the United Nations,
various charities, corporate sponsors and entertainers.

Belafonte said he was asked last year by the head of the U.N. Food and
Agricultural Organization, Jacques Douf, to "please use whatever creative
resources [were] at my disposal in the name of ending hunger." 

He said he approached an acquaintance, Djibril Diallo, the communications
director of the UNDP. But he says UNDP and Cisco Systems quickly seized
control of the project. 

"They co-opted the ownership of the Web site and the logo," Belafonte
said. "I then decided I could not stay with the project and give it the
grace of my presence, for whatever that was worth." 

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