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
But others are also worried, for different reasons. They wonder
whether Bono is riding the White House, or if it is the other way
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
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
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
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
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.