Originally written by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz for the Atlantic.
At the opening event of The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum, the rock star activist told Georgetown students how to help Africa without being condescending.
Anyone who’s ever sat in the cheap seats at a U2 concert has experienced the Bono effect. One minute, there’s a lonely guitar tech testing out riffs on an empty stage. Then the singer struts out, and his presence expands like a balloon in a Macy’s parade, rising upward and filling the entire 60,000-seat stadium.
It was a more restrained Bono who walked onstage at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall last night, following behind three men in dark suits: Georgetown President John DeGioia and Business School Dean David Thomas, and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, whose company cohosted the event. Bono wore a rock star uniform of black jeans, a black v-neck t-shirt, black beads, and a black blazer, along with his trademark wraparound sunglasses. But he had his voltage lowered to a respectful hum as he glanced around the gilded auditorium.
“What a room this is!” he remarked, standing in front of religious murals and the Jesuit motto Ad maiorum Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God). “I mean, U2 has played some nice halls. But I don’t know if this is a lectern or a pulpit. I feel oddly comfortable.”
In his efforts to help Africa, Bono can sometimes come across as a bit of a missionary. But his methods are anything but sectarian. He has joined forces with Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “If George Bush were here right now, I’d get down and kiss him on the lips!” Bono declared, a moment after praising House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (who was in the auditorium, sitting in the front row next to Senator Patrick Leahy).
Bono’s willingness to work with anyone is a large part of what makes him so successful — and sometimes controversial. In 2006, he took the stage at Davos and unveiled a new “virtuous brand” called Product Red that would raise money by licensing its logo to The Gap, Apple, and other major companies. “The thought of using consumer dollars made off the backs of workers held in sweatshops to help fund Bono’s causes is really hypocritical,” protested Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee for Workers and Human Rights. “That’s not the way to go.”
But the Red campaign has raised $200 million for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Bono doesn’t mind that the partner companies have also made money along the way. He recently told Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola, that if Coke signed on to Red, it would be able to update its old “Coke Adds Life” slogan to “Coke Saves Lives.” “If it works,” he said last night, “they’re going to keep going Red.”
Speaking to an audience made up mostly of Georgetown students, Bono stressed the importance of choosing one’s enemies wisely. “Make sure they’re interesting enough, because trust me, you’re going to spend a lot of time in their company,” he said. Instead of fighting companies or politicians, he suggested, the young generation should fight against “all the obstacles to fulfilling human potential.”
And he encouraged the students to look to Africa. “People say China is the future,” he said, “but if you ask the Chinese, they’re all headed to Africa. Africa’s going to be big, and it’s going to be young.” He spoke about the way technology was changing the continent. “This is the era of the Afro-nerd!” he proclaimed, praising Wael Ghonim, the young Google marketing executive who helped launch the Arab Spring. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and websites like Kenya’s I Paid a Bribe, said Bono, government leaders are being held accountable. As a result, he said, pharmaceuticals are getting cheaper and relief money is ending up where it’s supposed to be.
That last point may have been aimed especially at the politicians in the audience. During last year’s budget cuts, all foreign aid that wasn’t directly related to war was cut by $2.2 billion. The State Department’s budget was cut by $2.6 billion, and USAID’s by $258 million.
“Cuts hurt,” Bono said poetically. “Somebody bleeds. The aid cut alone would mean that nearly 275,000 people won’t get the AIDS treatment they need. Cuts shouldn’t cost the lives of the poorest of the poor. I put it to you: We must not let this economic recession become a moral recession. That would be double cruelty. And it might take away your generation’s shot at greatness in the wider world.”
At the end of his talk, a young woman from Namibia stood up to ask a question: “What kind of advice do you have for young Africans like myself who have access to a world of knowledge and opportunities and want to be able to take that back, without being condescending?”
Bono answered carefully. “Not to condescend — it’s very hard,” he admitted, saying a few words about Africa’s complexity. “We don’t quite have the answer. And honestly, I look forward to the day when you will be holding this speech. Because I see the absurdity of Paddy standing at the lectern because Desmond Tutu is busy.” After a round of appreciative laughter, he grew serious again. “I am called to serve you,” he said. “I think we’re all called to serve each other in that way, by God. Or,” he added, “by a sense of common decency.”