The odd couple go on safari (and

 

 

The odd couple go on safari (and

try to save the Third World while

they're at it)

 

The Independent, UK 18 May 2002

 

On Monday, Bono the pop supremo turned Third World

campaigner pitches up in Africa for a four-country, 10-day tour.

Beside him in the passenger seat will be the stern-faced figure of

Paul O'Neill, the silver-maned United States Secretary of the

Treasury, also known as world's most powerful finance minister.

 

And sprawled across the back of the tour bus, with cameras rolling

to capture the unique African jaunt, will be a scrum of bush

correspondents from media as unlikely as MTV and Rolling Stone

magazine, the music bible.

 

"It is possible for the two of us to see life through each other's

eyes," said Mr O'Neill, previewing the trip. "I'm going to get a set of

blue wraparound glasses and I'm going to give him a grey wig."

 

The odd couple's tour kicks off in Ghana and moves down to South

Africa and Uganda before a final gig in Ethiopia. They may not be

able to decide on which tapes to play on the tour bus or plane

but behind the incongruity lies a deadly serious purpose.

 

Africa's problems are finally showing, however faintly, on the radar of

American foreign policy. President George Bush, who recently

announced a $5bn boost to foreign aid, is finally considering issues

such as debt relief, fair trade and the continent's HIV/Aids crisis.

There has even been talk of a Marshall Plan for Africa.

 

And deep within the White House, harrying and haranguing on

which direction to take, is the unlikely figure of Bono. The scruffy

Dubliner's role is deemed so influential, it earned him a cover on

Time magazine last March.

 

"I'd have lunch with Satan if there was so much at stake," Bono

recently told a fellow U2 member, the Edge, who is worried about

the damage the association with conservatives could do to U2's

street cred.

 

But others are also worried, for different reasons. They wonder

whether Bono is riding the White House, or if it is the other way

around.

 

Mr O'Neill is a well-known sceptic of foreign aid and, even after the

$5bn pledge, an extremely small proportion of American aid goes to

the Third World.

 

Will the Irishman's passionate patter genuinely turn minds in

Washington, or just provide glowing PR for a hawkish administration

driven by self- interest? "Bono knows his stuff really well. We take

our hats off to him," Salih Booker, from the Washington think-tank

Africa Action, said. "But he risks inadvertently legitimising

approaches, such as globalisation, that in the end may be very

harmful."

 

Bono, a seasoned campaigner and committed Christian, says he

knows what he is doing. Whereas other pop stars tend to pick up

fashionable causes like new Gucci leatherwear, Bono and his wife

Ali have stuck with Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the

Chernobyl Children's fund down through the years.

 

They spent six weeks working in an Ethiopian orphanage in 1986 to

better understand what they were supporting; during the Popmart

tour Bono would phone up the targets of his activism live on stage.

 

But when it came to the cancellation of the Third World's crushing

$350bn (240bn) debt, he changed tack. First he sought out the

Pope, then a slew of European prime ministers, and finally George

Bush. The central idea is that celebrity, not music, can change the

world.

 

Bono used his fame to prise open doors sometimes offering

autographs for sons and daughters and once inside dazzled

sceptical policymakers with his nimble grasp of the facts.

 

Mr O'Neill admits he first avoided meeting with Bono, thinking it just

a publicity stunt, but then extended a 30-minute meeting into an

hour and a half. Now he describes him as "a substantive person

who wants to make a difference".

 

Bono has famously converted some crusty old conservatives,

despised by most liberals as untouchables, to his cause. The most

famous conversion was of the powerful Republican Jesse Helms, a

bitter critic of foreign aid, the United Nations and homosexuals. By

appealing to their common Christianity, Bono reduced the

80-year-old senator to tears.

 

In January he took the Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs on a tour of

three African countries. Those they met were impressed with his

common touch.

 

Sister Mary Donovan guided him around a Malawi township ravaged

by Aids and poverty. "A more astute, compassionate human being I

have not met in a long time," she said.

 

Soon afterwards he was addressing world leaders alongside Bill

Gates, then there was the Time cover, headlined "Can Bono Save

the World?"

 

By March, he was standing beside President Bush after the extra

$5bn in aid was announced. According to some reports, Bono was

a crucial player in securing the commitment. Photos showed him

strolling alongside the grinning Texan, flashing a V for victory sign.

 

It was a far cry from the days when the singer used to flash two

fingers at the establishment such as the Greenpeace dinghy stunt

outside the nuclear power plant in Sellafield and not from within it.

 

But that is exactly the factor that has worried campaigners like

Salih Booker. "The closer he gets to politicians, the closer he's

getting to that grey world of compromise. His strength is being on

the outside, a campaigner," he said.

 

Bono counters the critics by saying that strength comes from

influencing those on the inside. Next week's unprecedented trip will

put that idea to the test.