Engaging Power: Why Bono's Doing it Wrong

By Harry Browne · 27 Sep 2013

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Picture: George Bush and Bono courtesy PD-USGOV-POTUS/Wikimedia Commons.
Picture: George Bush and Bono courtesy PD-USGOV-POTUS/Wikimedia Commons.
Tim Adams' in-depth interview with Bono, published in last Sunday’s Observer, gave the celebrity activist an opportunity to respond to his left-wing critics. Unfortunately that criticism was misrepresented, and so his rebuttals hit only straw.

The interview suggested that those who criticise Bono do so largely because, as Adams put it in the comments below, ‘Bono has tried to work on these issues [of poverty, aid and development] with people Browne and [George] Monbiot believe he should not have’. It’s true that some critiques of Bono as neoliberal frontman tar him with guilt-by-association; but if the more considered attacks were limited to the Bush-Bono photo-ops then our arguments really would be highly vulnerable to being pierced by the truism that sometimes you have to work with unsavoury people if you want to get things done. In fact, though, I have to gone to some pains in my writing to point out that if Bono’s transactional model for his activism with the powerful (‘I give a little but get a lot’) were accurate, then he would indeed be due a lot of credit. (He is due some, as it happens.)

A Willing Fig-leaf

The real beef with Bono concerns not who he works with, but what he does with them. It’s notable, for example, that Adams, happy to explore the subtleties of the Bush question with Bono (and eliciting the sort of reply that makes it so hard to take Bono seriously), couldn’t bring himself to ask how and why Bono and ONE work with Monsanto and other multinationals to advance what Monbiot describes as a new imperial land-grab in Africa. Oxfam, hardly on the radical fringes of the global development community, has criticised this Bono-backed ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’ for focusing ‘too heavily on the role of the private sector’ and ‘one-size-fits-all technologies’, addressing a ‘question that hungry people have not asked’.

Of course, the unsavoury people and the rotten things go together. Eight years ago in Scotland, in the midst of the worst of the Iraq slaughter, Bono was flattering Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whom he called the Lennon and McCartney of global development, for leading the world in the fight against poverty. It was Bono’s idea for the 2005 Gleneagles summit to produce a formal anti-poverty declaration. When it came, his ‘embrace’ of it, the New York Times reported, ‘was treated with the solemnity of a Security Council resolution’. In fact, the Irishman’s embrace was a weapon that Blair and Brown employed against the many development organisations who rejected that summit outcome as a travesty of the ambition to ‘Make Poverty History’. Blair’s memoirs gleefully recall how he used Bono and Bob Geldof to sell the summit outcome, even while Africans and development groups accused the G8 of betraying them.

That was a moment when a serious activist, especially one with Bono’s credibility and reputation for integrity, would have stepped away from Blair. He could then have drawn attention to the real needs of the poor world, like the Quakers who in 1848 publicly turned down £100 from the British government for Irish famine relief because they were sick of providing cover for Britain’s unjust policies in Ireland. But that just isn’t Bono.

Bono’s Achievements

It is impossible to deny that Bono has been effective in directing money to dealing with AIDS. This achievement lies at the heart of his own familiar formula, repeated again in this interview: essentially, ‘either I work with George Bush or that woman dies and takes her children with her’. But the fact is, African countries would have been able to do more about AIDS and poverty, and do it for themselves, if aid and debt relief weren’t saddled with the traditional Washington-imposed conditions: weakening of the state sector, privatisation, the red carpet for foreign companies – all with Bono’s explicit approval.

History, including the history of the last two decades, tells us this is the opposite of a recipe for beating poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa was home to 10.5% of the world’s extremely poor in 1981. By 2008, after many years of Bono-style activism, that number had risen to 30%. (The proportion of extremely poor in sub-Saharan Africa has held roughly steady even as it fell steeply in Latin America and East Asia, with their very different economic models.) The number of AIDS cases continue to grow, and the drugs provided by the likes of RED are still not getting around sufficiently: more than one million are dead from the illness already this year, and in West Africa more than 80 per cent of infected pregnant women are not getting essential anti-retrovirals. Bono throws around seven-figure ‘lives saved’ numbers on the assumption that the only alternative to the way he proceeded was no action at all. But the real numbers about AIDS in Africa remain horrifying: if that’s success, I’d hate to see Bono’s idea of failure.

Meanwhile, the American evangelical Christians whom Bono boasts of introducing into Africa to fight AIDS are transforming many countries’ sexual politics with their reactionary agenda. I recently met lawyers in the US who help LGBT and HIV-positive asylum-seekers, and they are seeing the consequences of this among their latest African clients.

Movement Politics

The pretence that he stands not beside the powerful but rather at the head of a popular movement is central to Bono’s rhetoric. In this interview he claims ONE has 4 million members. This presumably refers to its email list: ONE appears to regard me as a member, for example, because I once sent a journalistic query (unanswered) to its website. Others join by texting at U2 concerts. After the latest G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the email from ONE claimed success: it had ‘called on world leaders to back Africa’s food revolution [sic] and unleash a transparency revolution, and they acted!’ The email came complete with a photo of ONE’s Adrian Lovett beside Prime Minister David Cameron, who happily received the ONE petition demanding that the British government and G8 do exactly what they were planning to do anyway.

ONE’s campaign for transparency – specifically, to improve the openness of multinational contracts with developing-world governments – is a good example of the kind of victories it is able to achieve. It’s true that the transparency campaign was sometimes fought in the face of opposition from Western oil companies. But as anyone who has observed the work of, say, Transparency International can testify, this sort of conflict doesn’t necessarily make improved transparency a radical egalitarian demand: on the contrary, it is typically portrayed as indicative of an ‘improved business climate’, and an aid to new entrants seeking to enter markets dominated by cosy informal arrangements. Bono’s transparency concerns (which don’t extend to his own finances) are of a piece with his alliance with that part of the capitalist elite often labelled ‘new-economy money’, from Bill Gates to Facebook.

Engaging Power

In the course of researching and writing a book about Bono, I confirmed that much of the widespread criticism of him, as seen in a thousand internet threads, is ill-informed. I don’t believe, for example that he pays no tax in Ireland; that he shafted other Irish bands to maintain U2’s hegemony; that ONE squanders money on salaries while pretending to be a charity; or that he does superficial anti-poverty work just to get publicity for his profitable music. It is far from clear, in short, that he is a fake.

His real problem is that, despite all the talk of an ‘inside/outside philosophy’, he is very much on the inside when it comes to the interests of the rich and powerful, venturing outside primarily to assure the rest of us that they’re on the right track. I don’t really blame him for doing that. It must be nice to be inside, and easy, once in that position, to feel that one is making a difference. Fortunately for the rest of us, one of the heirs to the global oligarchy has decided to step outside in a more genuine way.

The recent confession by Peter Buffett, son of billionaire US investor Warren, about ‘the charitable-industrial complex’ sums up the situation as politely as possible:

"Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left."

Buffett offers his philanthropic peers, for whom Bono is both mascot and model, the benefit of the doubt when he says they genuinely ‘are searching for answers’.  We can extend that courtesy to Bono too; but we can also point out that, given where he’s searching and with whom, it’s no wonder he hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

If one enters into negotiations with powerful officials as part of, and having amassed, a genuine alternative base of power, one may wield sufficient leverage to wrest real concessions. But Bono’s model of emotional appeals to elite figures, without doing the hard work of cultivating the kind of popular movement that would give those appeals bite, can secure only those ‘victories’ that do not conflict with powerful interests. The problem with Bono’s method, then, is not that he engages with the powerful. It’s that he does so on their terms.

Browne is a lecturer in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology, and author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power) (Verso, 2013).

This article orginally published by New Left Review is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/1797.

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