A rock star's new approach to world aid

This week, U2's Bono and Treasury Secretary O'Neill finish a 10-day African tour.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As Irish rock star Bono and American Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill wind up their 10-day fact-finding tour of Africa this week, the U2 frontman is not yet sure if he's found what he was looking for: "big change" and an open US wallet for Africa.

Whether or not he convinces a skeptical Mr. O'Neill to increase US interest in Africa, Bono has created a new model for celebrity involvement in poverty relief. His approach may ultimately have a far more lasting effect on the developing world than the one-shot, disaster-driven fundraising efforts of the past.

This is not the first time a high-profile celebrity has taken a major international issue and turned it into a personal crusade. Diana, Princess of Wales, lobbied for an end to the use of land mines; Elizabeth Taylor took on AIDS in the 1980s; and Richard Gere, somewhat infamously, railed against Chinese control of Tibet at the 1993 Academy Awards.

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But Bono's agenda – to persuade developed countries to give Africa more aid, sweeping debt relief, and better access to international markets – is broader and more complex than any previous pop-star campaign. He is attempting to address the root of Africa's ills rather than just the symptoms. Perhaps more important, the singer is using new tactics to get his message across, trading a mass-media awareness-raising campaign for quietly bending the ears of the rich and powerful.

"What makes Bono extremely interesting is that he's policy-focused," says Phil O'Keefe, a professor at England's University of Northumbria, who has written extensively about the politics of international aid. "He's made the shift that NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] like Oxfam and Save the Children have made, to say, 'Hey, we aren't going to be able to deal with this just by giving time and money. We've got to attack this as a political issue.' "

Live Aid – rocker Bob Geldof's mega-concerts to raise money for famine in Ethiopia, and still the most successful rock-star fundraising effort ever – created one model for celebrity involvement in social causes. Moved by horrific images of starving children in Ethiopia, Mr. Geldof put together a series of concerts in the mid-1980s, involving many of the biggest names in the pop-music world. The concerts raised $54 million for famine relief, and more important, aid workers say, awareness about the situation in Africa.

But after the spotlight left Ethiopia, many of the problems remained. "I don't think [Ethiopia] would have gotten the attention it did without Live Aid," says Joanna Macrae, coordinator of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London. "But in a way the problem with Live Aid is a problem with all those quick, loud responses. They don't get to the root of the problems."

In the wake of the Ethiopian crisis, Dr. Macrae says the international aid community reevaluated the way it approached large-scale humanitarian crises. They realized that the typical response often failed to address the political, social, and economic causes of disaster, and that well-intentioned aid sometimes unintentionally exacerbated the situation. As a result, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, organizations began to focus more on the causes of poverty and disaster.

"A lot of food was basically being captured by the Ethiopian government, which was using it in various ways, but it was not reaching people," Macrae says. "It was going to the armies and it was being used to lure people into government areas."

O'Neill has been critical of past aid efforts because of the waste he sees. He says that African governments must get their own political and economic houses in order for aid to be effective. "When I've been critical of what's gone before, it's not because I don't want to invest a lot in improving people's lives; but I know the difference between caring greatly and succeeding greatly," he told a news conference in Ethiopia.

In recent years, says Dr. O'Keefe, there's been another shift in aid mentality. Many international organizations now realize that the real money is controlled by governments and international monetary organizations. In response, O'Keefe says many are shifting their emphasis from small-scale, on-the-ground projects to international advocacy.

"The amount of [private] aid money, against the volumes of money you're talking about in terms of global trade, and the volumes of money you're talking about in global debt, and against even the volumes of money that are going to subsidize small farmers in the United States, is a drop in the bucket," says O'Keefe.

Bono's trip to Africa with O'Neill – which has included stops in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, and Ethiopia – and the advocacy he has done through DATA, the lobby group he founded with Bill Gates and Geldof, are evidence of these changing tactics. A Live Aid participant himself, Bono now is taking his case not to the streets but to the halls of power, meeting with senators and even prime ministers. Perhaps most surprising is the way that this long-haired rock icon is able to connect with some of America's most conservative politicians.

Bono's meeting with Senator Jesse Helms earlier this year, for example, is credited with changing the senator's mind about federal funding for AIDS programs in the developing world. Debt-relief advocates say the rock star, a devout Christian, is extremely knowledgeable about the topic and able to speak the language of conservatives, despite his different political views.

"I think that's what Bono's talent is, to be able to come into offices like Jesse Helms's and start talking about debt and challenging especially conservative politicians to talk about issues they've been reticent to address," says Marie Clarke, national coordinator of Jubilee USA Network, an organization working on debt relief with which Bono has been involved.

Whether or not Bono succeeds, activists and policymakers say he's on the right track. "What's going on is that the global trade system is reinforcing global poverty," says O'Keefe. "That's why Bono's good. He realizes that."

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