Bono of U2 fame has been a successful campaigner for debt relief, trade reform, and more and better international aid.
Bono’s insistence that overcoming poverty meant tackling complex policy questions was a striking and refreshing anomaly. The Irish rock star was brave enough to educate himself and demand that his fans, if they were serious about the cause, use their brains as well. Several years ago, Bono and his countryman Bob Geldof performed a superb double act on AIDS and poverty in Africa to force the hand of Prime Minister Tony Blair, when they thought his commitment to the cause was wobbling.
In May 2003, Tony Blair invited the leaders of Britain’s aid charities to breakfast at 10 Downing Street to canvass their views on what should be his government’s priorities for Africa. Apparently unscripted, Bob Geldof interrupted the aid chiefs’ presentations to lay out with practiced frankness the moral obscenity of the collapse in life chances of African children in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. Bono weighed in with facts and figures, speaking in a level, intense tone.
Blair wasn’t disconcerted. The British prime minister made not a single concession on substance to the aid agency chiefs’ points, and by the time Blair left the room, he had charmed and impressed Britain’s international charity constituency.
Geldof and Bono were not so easily won over. While the aid agency bosses munched pastries, the two Irishmen lurked in the corridor waiting for Blair to reappear. And when he did, they frog marched him out of the front door of Number 10 where the cameras were waiting for a quick press conference. Geldof announced his demand for a commission for Africa—he mentioned AIDS as the most pressing issue—and Blair rather weakly said he supported the idea. He had been bounced into Geldof’s agenda and was less than happy—but he knew better than to object.
Geldof had been incubating this plan for a while, and the breakfast-time prime ministerial hijacking was a crucial step in the project that culminated in Blair’s “Commission for Africa” and the Live 8 concerts which accompanied the G8 Summit in Scotland in 2005, where world leaders made their largest-ever pledges to end poverty and provide universal access for AIDS medication by 2010.
This was the zenith of celebrity activism on AIDS and poverty in Africa, cannily imposed on an impressionable government. It’s unlikely that the ambitious goals will be met—but funds for assistance and AIDS have been moving in the right direction. Without the involvement of Bono and Geldof, it’s unlikely that President George W. Bush would have created his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and this year expanded its budget to $85 billion for the next five years, making it the largest-ever aid commitment for a single disease.