"[T]he lyrics aren't literature; they are only part of the story."
Interview: Noreena Hertz, author
July 07, 2005
Recently @U2 posted the first chapter of Noreena Hertz' The Debt Threat. That excerpt is a blow-by-blow, meeting-by-meeting account of Bono's Jubilee 2000 campaign. After the scene is set by the rock star, Hertz examines the history of loans made to the developing world, describes the dangers of massive debt and recommends ways out of what she convincingly argues is a very, very bad situation for First World and Third World alike.
@U2 spoke by phone with Hertz, who is Associate Director for the Centre for International Business at the University of Cambridge. This conversation took place after she'd gone to Gleneagles but before the G8 summit commenced.
AP: How did you come to write this book?
NH: It was really this meeting with a Rwandan, Theogene Rudaswinga, who grew up in a refugee camp. He told me about the genocide in 1995. He went into the capital city, there were dead bodies littering the streets. He went into ministerial offices and saw everything had been stolen, even to the typewriters. He went to the World Bank and asked for help and was told, "Not until your country pays $3 million in interest on your loans." That story so upset me, shocked me and moved me. That's why I decided to write about it. And I knew there was one person I had to talk to: Bono.
AP: So how did you get to talk to Bono?
NH: It turns out he had read my first book, The Silent Takeover. He said he was a bit of a fan, which was really nice to hear! [laughs] My agent spoke to his manager and we arranged to talk. We had some very detailed conversations. [The history of the Jubilee 2000 campaign] was a story he wanted told. He gave me that story and also helped get me in touch with other key players in the story, like Bobby Shriver, and that really started it off. I thought that what Bono's role did was that it taught a lesson -- there's a lesson to be learned from it: individuals can change the world.
AP: How much longer do you think Bono might continue to have such a major role in these kinds of discussions?
NH: Bono is hugely committed to Africa. DATA, the organization that he and Bob Geldof and Bobby Shriver are behind, is playing a pivotal role in building awareness now in the United States on Africa and promoting the One campaign. Despite being on tour Bono has been traveling to Washington to lobby politicians on issues of debt relief, trade and aid. He is massively committed to this cause, and has the ability to get the world's political leaders to listen.
AP: Did you worry the book would be taken less seriously by the academic-economist type since you started it out with all this talk of a rock star?
NH: For me what's really important is that lots of people care about these issues. If you can write a serious book about poverty and communicate with a general audience, that's the important thing to do.
AP: How did you conduct your research?
NH: Through interviews with key people who are involved on all sides of the equation, from the banker who took me all through his house -- even showing me his waterbed! -- and who told me that he had been responsible for lending to the most corrupt regimes in the '70s, to debt traders who trade debt like a commodity, like a stock or a share, even though by doing so they can create crises in so many lives. I read lots and lots of stuff, incredibly dry academic material, dry World Bank and IMF reports...I discovered that much has been written on this subject that is accessible. That's surprising because there's such a great story here, you almost think it's fiction, it's almost filmic, with all the debt vultures, corrupt dictators...So that was the challenge, to get the human stories out.
AP: Speaking of stories that haven't gotten out...your book deals with the Cold War and its role in Third World debt.
NH: That story isn't known by that many people, no. It is fascinating and shocking that during the Cold War Africa was used as a pawn by the superpowers. The U.S., China and Russia used loans and aid in Africa to get countries on their side. Cold War strategies really drove decisions on who to bankroll. They propped up corrupt dictators like Mobutu in Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo], who chartered the Concorde for shopping sprees. The world knew he was corrupt; people were saying "He'll never pay back these loans" -- but still he received half of the U.S. loans to Africa in the '70s. The U.S. wanted Zaire as a base for their covert activities in Angola. The countries were bankrolled to help geopolitical interests, and that would always be not a great situation, but it's particularly unacceptable as the Congolese people are among the poorest in the world.
AP: So the corruption in Africa is used as a reason not to make any more money available, but there's corruption on both sides.
NH: Absolutely. Yes, of course. Africa has a corruption problem, but so does Europe, so does the U.S. If you were to type "corruption" in Google News every country would come up! Fair enough. Transparency International has ranked the countries of the world and they show Botswana, for example, as less corrupt than Italy and Greece.
When there's corruption, it goes two ways, there's a corruptor and a corruptee. Our countries should not be involved in kickback schemes, they shouldn't perpetuate these cycles of corruption.
I think of course there are some regimes that are so terrible -- Mugabe's, for example -- that regime is so terrible, we can't deal with it. But in the majority of cases we just have to find clever ways to get around the corruption.
AP: Can you suggest any?
NH: Germany has a very good scheme. There's a real shortage of doctors in some countries in Africa; they leave their countries because salaries are so low. In all Sierra Leone there are maybe forty doctors. Germany pays African doctors a normal salary -- if they go back to their country. It's a smart way to get health to the people. There are microcredit schemes. This is particularly helpful to women when they can't borrow money otherwise -- you provide very small loans, fifty dollars, a hundred dollars, and then women in community can start a little business. There are ways to protect monies in a mechanism similar to a trust fund. The money can be specifically earmarked for health, education or development, so that it has to be used in that way. We've seen trust funds like this work well for the environment, for conservation.
But the bottom line is that if, out of every dollar of debt relief given, someone were to steal 25 cents of that, would that be a reason not to give 75 cents?
We can't walk away from this situation. We can't walk away just because we don't want to deal with corruption. Until corruption is gone, in the interim, we need to get creative.
AP: Tell me about some of the outcomes that have been seen in places where debt cancellation has already taken place.
NH: In Uganda, for example, we see that primary school enrollment has doubled over the past three years. There's been some real headway in their HIV programs, especially for children. In Mozambique, debt relief has aided their immunization programs. In Tanzania, debt relief has enabled over a million children to go to school who hadn't been going before.
AP: When talking about debt cancellation and aid to Africa I get the feeling some people worry that there could be a "kudzu effect" -- that something we try to do to help might end up doing more harm than good.
NH: That's one of the reasons we don't want to micro-manage other countries. We have to believe that countries themselves are better placed to know what would work in those specific locales. You can't have this one-size-fits-all strategy. Each country has its own culture and history, and that will affect the right things to be done for that country. Ideally, local communities have to have the most say in how monies are spent.
AP: With that in mind, who are some of the good African voices to listen to on these issues?
NH: There are some good pressure groups and NGOs [non-government organizations]. Jubilee South, for example, that's the debt campaign group coming out of Africa. There's also Africawoman, which is a voice for African women across the continent. Those are two good places to start.
AP: How are things going in Edinburgh?
NH: I just spoke at a Make Poverty History rally on Saturday in front of 220,000 people -- my taste of what it's like to be a rock star! I only wish I could sing. [laughs] The crowd was amazing. It was an amazing energy, lots and lots of people, bands, movie stars, a high celebrity quotient but there were also quite a lot of activists. Bianca Jagger was there; she was really great. That's all positive news. I think the challenge now is that we need to not be disappointed when the G8 don't deliver everything we've been calling for because they're not going to. It'd be easy to be frustrated by that.
It's also important not to claim victory before we have victory. We don't want the G8 pulling the wool over our eyes; as yet they haven't offered that much. They've made out that they've given 100% debt cancellation, and it's not true. Only 18 out of 62 eligible countries are going to get it, and there are economic conditions attached. The G8 are saying a country has to privatize water, electricity, roads, railways -- and what business do we have to insist that Zambia privatize their National Bank? This is part of that micro-managing approach.
Even more disappointing, and not many picked this up in the announcement of debt relief -- aid will be reduced by the amount of debt relief given. So they're giving and taking at the same time.
We've got to be careful to look at the fine print and not claim victory too quickly. We'll have to keep pressure on. This is the beginning of the process, not the end. There are more big important meetings, a UN summit in September, a WTO meeting in December where trade will be on the table. The travesty in Europe is that cows are subsidized for $2.50 a day when over a billion people live on less than that; the travesty in the U.S. is that cotton farmers receive three times as much in subsidies than the aid we give to Africa. These issues are not going to be addressed, they will be barely touched on, this week, but they'll be up for discussion in September and December. Anyone reading this who is starting to become more involved -- my hope is that they'll continue this interest and pressure. We have to, if we really want to make a difference.
© @U2/Pancella, 2005.