Washington, DC — They are an unlikely duo, to say the least: Irish rock star Bono, of U2, and Bush Administration Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill. But the two men are pairing up and between May 20-31st will travel to four sub-Saharan African nations. They will visit schools, HIV/Aids clinics and various development projects. The idea for the tour grew out of an initial meeting in O'Neill's office last year. At first resistant to meeting Bono, O'Neill agreed to give him 30 minutes. Their talk lasted an hour and a half. O'Neill later said he had been impressed by the rock star's knowledge and commitment.
Bono's interest and concern with Africa dates back to 1984 when he and his group performed in the Live Aid concert to help raise money for famine relief in Africa. Afterward, he and his wife spent six weeks working in an Ethiopian orphanage. To focus public attention on issues confronting Africa he has founded an organization: Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa (DATA). AllAfrica's Charles Cobb Jr. spoke with Bono about his upcoming trip. Excerpts:
You're going off to Africa with Secretary Paul O'Neill, so I'd be interested to know what you're hoping to accomplish. And why with Secretary O'Neill? You have to admit, it is an unusual hook-up, prominent musician/rock star and the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States.
Well, I had a very good relationship with the last Secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence Summers, now the President of Harvard, and I had a very good relationship with the Clinton Administration. But I didn't know if we would be able to have the same access and confidence with the new administration. Secretary O'Neill is a tough guy, that's why they put him in that job, and he actually (laughs), he resisted meeting me. I really had to doorstep and eventually he surrendered and we got on very well.
Why do you think he resisted meeting you?
He didn't know what to do with this Bono guy. He had some experience working in Africa and I think he just wanted to make sure that I wasn't a bullshitter, so he turned it into a guarded relationship with me. But I was struck by his knowledge of Africa and his determination to make some progress there. I thought we could work with that.
So the trip to Africa together came out of that. I said, 'well I can show you places where say, debt cancellation has worked very well. Uganda, where there's three times the amount of children enrolled in school as a result of money freed up from debt cancellation. Or, again in Uganda, how they're controlling the Aids emergency, Senegal ...'
I wanted to show him that there are people in Africa who really have great programs going and are very badly under-funded.
When did you first meet him, persuade him of this?
I think it must have been late last year.
Did you propose the trip or had he already been thinking about making a trip to Africa?
I said I would show him. It was a throw down. I didn't expect him to take up the gauntlet and say, 'Okay. I'll do that.' And I'm very impressed by the time and energy that the Treasury has put into this.
I think it's coming also from the President. I think he is getting a lot of questions from faith-based communities in the United States who have been - I could kindly put it - asleep on the issue of particularly, Aids, the Aids emergency in the continent of Africa, but are waking up, and we've had many meetings with them.
And I think Laura Bush, the First Lady, seems to be very interested in this issue and particularly mother-to-child transmissions which is just - when there are drugs like Nevirapine around, it's just inexcusable that there isn't money to fund that.
And I also, when I'm speaking with the President, or when I'm speaking with anyone I meet in the administration and in Congress, I always talk about my trips to Africa where I'm meeting Aids workers who themselves have HIV and cannot afford the dollar a day to get the anti-retrovirals and I just say, these are the fireman running up the burning building. These are the heroes. These are the people actually working in their communities trying to get the message out about safe sex et cetera, and they're not getting access to the drugs. How can you justify this in the 21st century?
And most people, their jaws drop and they start staring at their feet.
Would it be fair, then, to say that Aids is at the center of this trip?
No, we have a sort of an agenda that we call the 'DATA agenda,' Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa. We think that three of the biggest issues facing Africa are debt and the burden of old debt, Aids and how it's setting back development, and trade, that there's not a level playing field, that Africa's not allowed to sell a lot of its products to Europe and America. This is scandalous! And when you have the United States as this great light of free-market thinking, it's just shocking that subsidies are preventing Africa from trading with the United States.
We also say that there's another side to the 'data agenda', which is democracy, accountability, transparency in Africa, because we can't get these monies, we can't get these deals whilst the corruption is at the present level. And the word that we have formed with that from civil society is, make sure that debt cancellation is tied with strong conditions and that's what we're doing.
What could be used as a yardstick for measuring the success of this particular trip? What would you consider, at the end of it, a successful trip?
I think if we can convince a tough guy like Secretary O'Neill that there are effective programs to fight the Aids emergency, that there are health and education initiatives in various countries like in Ghana. That there is stuff to get excited about. In Uganda, there's stuff to get excited about. In Ethiopia...
I think if he starts to see that American tax dollars can do good work in Africa. I think we can up the percentage of GDP, the per head contribution of Americans, which is low. It's at the bottom among some 20 donor nations.
Now we've already had some success in talking the administration into an increase in foreign assistance earlier in the year. They've upped it, I think, five million starting in the '04 budget and they're ready to move up, but not to the level that we really needed to deal with the real problems and especially in the light of Aids.
I think there was a commitment made by the wealthy nations of the North, like 25 years ago, to move their foreign assistance from their average of 0.3 or 0.4 per cent of GDP up to 0.7, and rather the opposite happened. The United States has given less than 0.1 percent, as you know, and, I think, in order to achieve the millennium goals of halving global poverty by 2015, they are going to have to get there. It may take seven years. It may take ten years, but that's where they've got to go. We want to have a few steps toward this taken by the end of this year.
Have you persuaded Secretary O'Neill of this?
No, but he's coming on this trip to Africa. It's an amazing thing. I mean they were very inclusive in discussing the details of the visit, where we should go and I'm not riding in his entourage, you know. We have - the people I work with - contributed to the design of the trip.
Congress, just today, there was a bill dropped by Senators Frist and Kerry to increase the '03 budget to increase assistance by US$2.5 billion. This is real movement. This is hard to do. Over the years it's been very difficult to get peoples' attention. I think September 11 has made the world feel a lot smaller for Americans because even though they are a continent, they often act like an island. And I think they're very aware of how interconnected they all are and, whether we like it or not, the state of Africa will affect Europe and America. If you don't put the Aids emergency under control it will cost much more down the road.
It's an absurdity that I have the ear of this man and the other people and the President, but I want to use it to do more than whisper the conversations I hear in Africa. I want the African voices to be heard and not the Irish rocker voice.
Which leads me to an inevitable question: How does an Irish rock star become interested in Africa?
It's an anomaly. I think it's probably - if there is such a thing as folk memory - a sense that our country had a famine in the middle of the 19th century that halved our population, that two million died and two million went off to become policemen and priests in New York.
I think, also, it's from a sense of having come out from under the hoof of colonialism and having recently turned around our economy. And this is the kind of good news from an Irishman that helps meeting with finance ministers in Africa. They've so much to deal with, and it's not really comparable, but I do say, you know our country is now one of the most prosperous economies in Europe, but twenty years ago it was in the toilet and we were being bullied and it is possible to turn these things around, you know, if we can just apply the minds to do the job.
Would you say something about your itinerary - where are you going and who are you seeing?
I think the first stop is Ghana, I was there a few months ago. It's not a great example of debt cancellation It came into that HIPC framework a bit late but there's reason to be kind of encouraged by some of the things they're doing there.
Then we go to South Africa and then on to Uganda and Ethiopia. The thrilling thing about Uganda is that three times the amount of people are going to school. Two times the amount of children are going to school from where before they had debt cancellation. Just showing that to Secretary O'Neill, well I think that he's going to be very impressed. And also, President Museveni has a lot of success withstanding the Aids crisis, and I think that's something he's quite keen to look at.
How long will it take?
Then on to Ethiopia. Just under two weeks.
And how will you follow up, finally? And by that I really mean, follow up with the Secretary? I know you're setting up an office here.
Yeah, we're setting up an office. I think this administration likes things to be a bit more formal than we have the resources for so we've asked Bill Gates to help us out at an office end, and George Soros, another person who's very involved in these issues, and we're going to put on suits and ties and take our movement - which essentially started in the streets around the G8 summit and just the noisy protest of students' unions and, indeed, mother's unions on that issue - into the sort of boring boardroom and boa hat and briefcase... anything to get the job done.
I really love Africa and I think it has extraordinary potential and there's a lot in the past that hasn't really been dealt with, resolved, and in the present there's still a lot of problems with corruption. And where there is new leadership, new and honest leadership, and clear and transparent process, I am sure we can get the support of the United States and Europe in a way that we have not seen before for decades and that's the job at hand.