How important is an Irish rock star in the struggle to halt the ravages of disease and poverty in the developing world? Last spring alone, Bono toured sub-Saharan Africa with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O"Neill, stood by at the White House as President Bush announced a new multibillion dollar U.S. aid program and was the subject of a Time magazine cover story asking, "Can Bono save the world?"
Bono, with Grace, one of Uganda's warriors against the AIDS crisis. She, too, is a singer, committed to raising awareness about AIDS. Uganda has decreased its HIV infection rate from 13 percent to 6 percent.
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Harvard professor and director of the Center for International Development, says that if Bono is not the world"s most important politician, he is "definitely No. 2." Dating back to his work with Live Aid, there is no other global celebrity who so relentlessly leverages his notoriety in the name of humanity. Bono lives with his wife and four children in Dublin, but he seems to constantly be either in Washington, D.C., lobbying reluctant politicians or dragging worldwide media with him to document the tragedies of Africa. "He is so incredibly serious and consequential about this, which is why he makes a difference," Sachs says. "Bono has changed the minds of people you would not believe." Now Bono brings his message to Indianapolis. He and actress Ashley Judd, along with a Ugandan HIV survivor and a children"s delegation from Ghana, will be in town Dec. 5 as part of a seven-day, seven-city "Heart of America" tour with the non-profit organization DATA (Debt-Aids-Trade-Africa). Both the tour and the organization are designed to raise awareness about Africa"s crises with debt and AIDS and the trade restrictions that block the continent from overcoming its problems. (Details of the Indianapolis visit were not available at press time.) On the eve of the tour, which began on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, Bono spoke with NUVO: NUVO: How did you first become concerned about the people of sub-Saharan Africa? Bono: It goes back for me all the way to the "80s and the Live Aid concert that U2 was a part of. I know the "80s have a lot to answer for, not the least of which is the mullet I sponsored myself. Might I put it on record I"m disappointed I"m not on mullet.com? But apart from shoulder pads and silk bomber jackets with radio stations" names on them, the "80s did produce the idea that music people could step into the void left by politicians regarding huge famine in Africa - in this instance Ethiopia. It was music people who said it was unacceptable that millions of lives were at risk for lack of food and water. That this was happening in the 20th century was an obscenity. I got caught up in that to the point where my very young wife and I - we were 25 and 24 - went to Africa after that concert and worked in northern Ethiopia. When we came back on the plane, we swore we would never forget what we had seen. But we did. You go back to your lives. Somewhere in the back of our minds, though, our promise took. We knew that charity wasn"t the answer. So in the "90s, we decided to approach Africa as a justice issue. We saw that certain types of poverty are structural, it"s not just about natural calamity. Natural calamity is present in Africa, as is corruption and a certain despotism, which is probably at the top of the list of Africa"s woes. You can"t solve every problem. But those you can solve, you must. And that includes the corrupt relationship between the south and the north in the sort of debt bondage that continues. Live Aid, for instance, raised $200 million for Ethiopia. We then discover Africa is paying $200 million in interest every few weeks for the loans that have been taken out in a previous generation. NUVO: Most people in the U.S. would never let our next-door neighbor die from starvation or die because they could not get the medicine they need. In this "Heart of America" tour, how do you go about convincing people in the U.S. that people in Africa are our neighbors? Bono: People imagine that this land-locked area of the United States will be isolationist mentally as well as physically. But, of course, that"s not true. In our opinion, the values of this part of the world - the decency, the community spirit - makes this area the rudder that might turn the supertanker America on these issues. What is in the heart of America is soon on the mind of America. For us, this is where to start. If we furnish people here with the facts, it is our supposition that people will figure a way to respond. Information on this AIDS emergency, which is the biggest health emergency ever facing mankind, is not readily available through the news media. And that"s why an Irish rock star has to get back in the bus he hoped he was out of [laughs], and take a very different kind of band on the road. Amplification is our middle name. But I wish I didn"t have to do this. There"s something a little unsettling that I do. Even I can see that: a rock star with a cause, please. Overfed, overpaid, overexposed rock star with a cause. [Laughs] Oh God, preserve us from such things. But I, for whatever reason, have a feel for this. And I think I also have a feel for the country. I am a fan of America. When politicians tell me to my face that there are no votes in this, and that the people that make up the middle of America don"t give a shit, I tell them they"re wrong. I suppose that"s why I"m here, to prove that they are wrong. NUVO: A lot of people who share your concern for Africa are extremely frustrated with politicians like George W. Bush, Jesse Helms and Paul O"Neill. What made you decide to reach out to them? Bono: When faced with a crisis of this proportion, the stakes are so high that you can"t play the obvious good guys/bad guys game. Two and a half million Africans are going to die next year. By the end of this decade, there will be another 25 million AIDS orphans in Africa alone. This is a crisis that dwarfs any war that has ever been fought. More people will die of AIDS than by a combination of all the wars fought in the 20th century. And that"s just at the present trajectory. If India and China go off, forget everything I"m saying. When faced with that, as Bob Dylan would say, if there is an original idea out there, I would use it. [Laughs] I think that"s in "Brownsville Girl." On the right, they have some reasons to be cynical about foreign aid. A lot of the aid achieved its end and saved lives, but too much of it was wasted. Too much lined the pockets of despots and dictators - which, by the way, the right propped up with aid. But they have a point. So I can say to Secretary O"Neill, "If Americans are getting bang for their buck and if we can assure people that their tax dollars will save lives and in fact transform countries for relatively tiny amounts, will they not respond?" And he says yes, in that case, they will respond. They will respond because most Americans are embarrassed to be at the bottom of the list of the richest countries in their contribution [as a percentage of Gross National Product] to the poorest of the poor. NUVO: One of DATA"s points of emphasis is that trade with Africa is as important as aid. Why is that? Bono: There is something really wrong about the nipple of aid. Africans want off it. That"s why we don"t argue our debt case as philanthropy, we argue the case as a justice issue. If your grandfather couldn"t pay back a loan on his house or his car, we don"t put you in jail. We stopped debtors" prisons in the 19th century, but we"re still doing it to countries. Africa just wants the same rules, a level playing field. Africans want to be able to put their products on our shelves, as we want to be able to put ours on theirs. At the moment, they are not allowed to do so. For instance, they are prohibited from using the same tariffs that were brought in with the U.S. farm bill [signed into law last May despite wide international criticism]. If you want to get a loan from the World Bank or the IMF, you cannot have any protectionism. This is unjust to deny others what you demand for yourself. NUVO: President Bush"s administration is proposing a $5 billion foreign aid fund called the Millennium Challenge, where countries can qualify for aid if they can demonstrate they are meeting certain criteria like protecting a free market, fighting corruption, spending on education, etc. What do you think of that? Bono: Most of the language we"re quite pleased with, in terms of cracking down on corruption, the insistence on transparency and good governance, the fact that most of the money is going to the poorest countries. This is good news for Africa. It could potentially double the U.S. contribution to Africa, which is two-thirds of the world AIDS problem and the world"s poverty problem. So that we"re pleased about. As for the free market portion, you know, walk the talk before you demand it of others. [Laughs] It"s a matter of some discussion whether a free market would benefit the developing world over the developed. There are two sets of opinions, and I haven"t made my own mind up. But I know one thing: You can"t demand for others what you won"t accept yourself. NUVO: What"s the best way to address the African AIDS crisis? Bono: Look to what has worked. What worked in Uganda was a very, very aggressive prevention campaign by President [Yoweri] Museveni. He also did great on the debt issue, by the way. As a result of Uganda having its debt cancelled, nearly three times the number of children now go to school in Uganda. The key to that is transparency. Uganda had a Poverty Action Fund, where they ring-fenced the money freed up from debt cancellation, so that civil society could see where the money was going. It was hugely effective. The other thing is drugs. This is an opportunity for the United States. The way the United States is perceived in the wider world is now a security issue. I don"t beat up the pharmaceutical industry, I just say to them, "Give us lower prices. We need your research and development. We don"t care if you are making profit as long as you are researching the disease." They"ve been backing off on an AIDS vaccine. Merck is doing an AIDS vaccine, largely because we"ve been banging the dustbin lid. We need to see these [HIV treatment] drugs as advertisements for American innovation and creativity. They say, "Oh, you can"t get these drugs to the farthest reaches of Africa." Yet we can get cold fizzy drinks there. You know, let"s talk to Coca-Cola about using their infrastructure and their refrigerated trucks. [Laughs] There is an opportunity here for the United States to take the lead. In a time when it is talking tough on terrorism, might that not be a smart thing to do, as well as the moral thing to do? NUVO: How can a person from Indianapolis help the people in Africa? Bono: You can contact five people and convince them that this is what your idea of America is about, and ask them to educate themselves and write their congressman. I think that is more than a pebble in the pond. The ripples will be seen. The cynical politicians in Washington who are convinced there are no votes on this issue will be embarrassed by this kind of activity. There are politicians on both sides of the aisle who do care, but they need to be reminded this is a priority for America, especially at this time. For more information about DATA and the crisis in Africa, along with instructions on how to contact the president and members of Congress, check www.datadata.org.