Bono

From Andrew Rice’s column entitled The Complicated Business of Caring About Africa in the New York Observer, June 12 2007:

I’d been living in Africa for all of five days when I had my first run-in with a celebrity. It was a good sighting: Bono himself. At the time, I was still living in a hotel, out of a suitcase filled with precautionary measures: pills for the malaria, iodine tablets for the water, tubes of bug repellent for the outdoors, a mosquito net for the indoors, a bottle of Cipro for God knows what other pathogens I might encounter in Uganda. But already, I had an inkling that maybe I’d over-prepared.

On that fifth night, I found myself sitting at the breezy, flower-bedecked outdoor bar of the hilltop Kampala Sheraton, watching the wraparound-shaded rock star share (as I recall it) bowls of chicken curry with the comedian Chris Tucker. The evening was breezy and almost impossibly comfortable, and I thought to myself: Really, this is not how Africa was advertised.

I thought about that night again recently, when I saw Bono’s face staring out at me from the cover of the latest Vanity Fair. The magazine is devoting this month’s issue to the continent of Africa, a subject it deemed best illustrated by a series of Annie Leibovitz cover portraits. There are 20 in all, depicting a wide range of famous people, three of whom are actually African. But Bono, as “guest editor,” is the issue’s undoubted star.

Africa is advertised differently now, and for that we can credit the Irish band leader’s ample conscience. Not so long ago, Americans considered the continent—when they considered it at all—one massive, undifferentiated, machete-waving war zone: a perpetual, insoluble crisis. Thanks to Bono, the new message is that people of the privileged world can, in fact, solve Africa’s problems, if only we choose to care.

It’s not that easy, of course, and the reality is that the recent surge in popular interest in Africa has coincided with a bitter debate inside the field of international development. Put simply, it is over the limits of caring. One faction, popularly associated with the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, argues that the developed world needs to provide tens of billions of dollars of additional financial aid to the world’s most impoverished nations. The other faction, led by N.Y.U.’s William Easterly, says that much of the aid we currently provide has deleterious effects, fueling corruption and undermining democracy.

It’s a difficult and morally ambiguous conflict, one that was brought up during Bono’s 2002 trip to Uganda by one of his travel companions, then–Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. Visiting a rural well, Mr. O’Neill asked why it’d been impossible to bring safe drinking water to all of the countryside, considering that doing so would cost a small fraction of the $300 million the World Bank had lent Uganda the year before. “Where did the money go?” he asked.

You won’t see that question addressed in Bono’s issue of Vanity Fair. There is an admiring profile of Mr. Sachs, which concludes that “if the history of international development is a history of failure, it is because too many of the people in the field are complacent, or incompetent, or not accountable.” There are many prominent mentions of Bono’s personal projects, such as the ONE Campaign, which urges nations to spend 1 percent of their budgets on poverty-eradication programs, and (Product) Red, which brands cell phones and iPods as philanthropic gestures. The editorial content bleeds unapologetically into the advertising: The red backgrounds of Ms. Leibovitz’s cover portraits echo the opening spread for the Gap’s line of red T-shirts, as well as inside ads for the (Product) Red campaign itself. “MEANING IS THE NEW LUXURY,” says one full-page ad, in stark black letters. “BE A GOOD-LOOKING SAMARITAN,” exhorts another.

In his opening essay, Bono writes that in just nine months, (Product) Red has raised around $25 million for its beneficiary, the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. What he doesn’t mention is that throughout its brief existence, the Global Fund—a Sachs brainchild—has been wracked by corruption scandals. Last week, the news in Uganda was dominated by the arrests of four onetime government officials, including the powerful (and immensely wealthy) former health minister, on charges of skimming huge sums off the millions in Global Fund grants Uganda has received. And, lest we think corruption is purely an African problem, an internal audit revealed earlier this year that the British executive director of the fund, Sir Richard Feachem, was using his expense account to rent limousines and to throw expensive dinner parties. New luxury, indeed.

On a recent return visit to Uganda, where I’d lived for two years, one of the first changes I noticed was that a multistory residential building had been erected across the dirt road from the little pub I frequented. My friends told me the owner of the property worked for the health ministry. They’d nicknamed the place the “Global Fund Apartments.” We all laughed at the joke: Ugandans know that there are worse sins in this world than corruption. They’ve learned, through rough experience, to see Africa for what it is: a continent of people, not vessels for our pity. Their Africa is a vibrant, funny, human place. I wish we could separate it from this business of being inspi(red).