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Our man in Africa (Part 1)

Jamie Drummond lobbies the richest people on the planet on behalf of the poorest.Tim Adams meets the man with a direct line to the world's most powerful leaders

Observer, May 11, 2008
By: Tim Adams


It is unnerving, as a journalist, to travel with Jamie Drummond. He never stops asking questions. In Tanzania, where I spend a week with him, he asks questions of world bank leaders and presidential advisers, of dollar-a-day farmers and fishermen on dhows, of editors and opposition leaders and economists and statisticians and doctors and teachers and nurses. He cheerfully interrogates the sick and the well, schoolchildren and grandmothers. The questions are always local and precise, but they also relate to a bigger enquiry, Drummond's specialised subject: how best to change the world.

"If we are trying to persuade someone to spend a billion dollars here," he says, as we drive through the back streets of Dar es Salaam, flooded a foot deep after the rains, on the way to another meeting, "the very least I can do is never stop being intensely curious as to the way that money should be spent." Some questions get closer to the heart of things than others. At one point, on a rural road toward the end of a long day, we pass a wooded area in a valley near Kilimanjaro. In the back of the car is a local agronomist. "What exactly is in the forest?" Drummond asks, with his routine edge-of-the-seat alertness. The agronomist looks out of the window. "Trees," she says.

Drummond, 37, is the executive director of DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), the organisation he set up six years ago with Bono and Bob Geldof, among others, to lobby the richest people on the planet on behalf of the poorest. While Bono and Geldof have made headlines and met presidents, Drummond has been their representative on earth, driving arguments, making policy, creating access. DATA grew out of the Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt movement and came of age three years ago in helping to co-ordinate the Make Poverty History campaign, pressuring G8 leaders into signing the historic Gleneagles agreement to double aid to Africa. Since then, Drummond and his team of nearly 100 in London and Washington have been working non-stop in the sometimes losing battle of making sure those signatories honour their promises.

In this effort, DATA has perhaps the most star-studded board of advisers and supporters of any organisation anywhere: it counts Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros and the guys from Google among its backers; the Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs and Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen as its mentors; and most of A-list Hollywood -- Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon -- as its informal ambassadors. (Drummond resolutely does not drop names, though he will from time to time say something like, "I was in the mountains of Ethiopia with Brad Pitt when news of his relationship with Angelina Jolie broke. He got drunk with the locals, who had no idea who he was.")

DATA has, through Bono's determined charm and Geldof's anger and the stubborn need to know of Drummond and his team, succeeded in getting its argument into places never before thought possible; in February, George W. Bush was in Tanzania with Drummond and Geldof delivering $700m in aid; each of the three potential U.S. presidential candidates has been filmed wearing DATA's white wristband and endorsing its policies. However, the currency of DATA is not celebrity but information. "Access doesn't last long if you don't have anything to say," Drummond says. Hence the questions.

He has come here by invitation of the Tanzanian president, Jakaya Kikwete, the new leader of the African Union, who met Bono at a conference in New York at the end of last year. Tanzania is something of a laboratory for those who believe that properly directed aid can transform the lives of the world's poorest people. It is, in this sense, the latest in a long line of African countries to assume the media mantle of Most Hopeful Nation. Though 90 percent of Tanzania's 36m population live on less than 1 a day, the more you travel and talk it is hard not to see an extraordinary extravagance of possibility here: untapped agricultural resources (only 3 percent of land is irrigated), abundant mineral deposits (including the continent's second-largest gold reserves) and a largely unexploited tourist brochure that includes Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar and the Serengeti. Above all, Tanzania is peaceful, relatively democratic and tolerant -- in short, the development agencies' dream.

As a result it is also currently the biggest recipient of foreign aid in sub-Saharan Africa, this year with $1.8bn in funding from the World Bank, $700m from President Bush's Millennium Challenge Account and enormous investment in health, primarily for Aids and malaria, from the Global Fund. Dfid, the British international development department, is giving 150m in direct aid to Kikwete's government, more than to any other country. When added to aid given through European agencies, that's 5 from each British citizen to each Tanzanian. DATA has been at the heart of the lobbying for that unprecedented compact; Drummond wants to prove it is money that can be well spent. If poverty is to be made history anywhere, this seems a good place to start.

To this end, in his informal tour of duty, Drummond explains what he calls the Data deal. He does this so often that it becomes a kind of single-word mantra. "We'll-try-to-do-more-about-Debt-Aid-Trade-if-you-do-more-about-Democracy-Accountability-and-Transparency," he suggests. The second half of that bargain is hard to measure, but some figures stick. Since 2000, when Tanzania was granted $3bn of debt relief, 3m more children have enrolled in the country's primary schools.

To ensure such momentum can be maintained, Drummond goes in search of evidence of that most elusive of entities: the growth of civil society. He finds it in the person of Sakina Datoo, the editor of the Sunday Citizen, who talks animatedly of holding politicians to account; in Zitto Kabwe, a young opposition spokesman who has given teeth to Parliament by exposing a history of corruption in government mining contracts; and he finds it, too, on school noticeboards, "talking walls" that explain to parents the resources schools have been promised, the teacher-pupil ratios they should expect, and in homegrown agencies collecting independent statistics of Tanzania's healthcare trends and nurturing women's rights.

All African development tests an optimist's faith. Drummond argues that it is always about "moving the chaotic mess of governance slowly in the right direction." From this perspective the fact that the newspapers are full of stories of corruption, that Kikwete has just removed his prime minister and two of his cabinet for alleged collusion in fraudulent energy deals, is for him the clearest indicator of progress. It is not enough for Drummond to be asking complex questions; all of Tanzania needs to be asking those questions too.

I have a question: how did Drummond, a man with clear-eyed intelligence, who has retained a backpacker's zeal about the injustice of the world, come by his address book? The answer is that he started with one phone number and went from there.

Much of the time, sitting in the back of a 4x4 as it bumps along some of the more challenging miles of Tanzania's roads between meetings, the only sound apart from the grind of the gears is that of Drummond's thumbs on his mobile phone, passing news of the world outside the windscreen back to London and Washington; he works in three time zones and his BlackBerry never sleeps. Now he is on the phone to a Japanese minister about the forthcoming Tokyo G8; now he is in touch with Bill Gates's office about a board meeting; now he is listening to Bob Geldof, who wants to talk "Africa strategy, Asia strategy, Strategy strategy." (It is, Drummond says, "always like a double espresso talking to Bob.")

This evangelism about connecting different worlds is compulsive. Once, he confesses, during a Davos weekend he had two phones clamped to his head all day, and in the evenings he had to apply ice packs to his burning ears. Several times he has been rendered digitally helpless by repetitive strain injuries, but his thumbs have always come back for more.

Given this compulsion, it's no surprise that all of this began with a phone call. All development workers have an epiphany, and Drummond's came in 1995, when he was 24 and working for Christian Aid in Ethiopia. It was 10 years after Live Aid and he was on the ground looking at what had changed - the answer was, depressingly little. While 200m in aid was coming in to Ethiopia, double that was always going out to service the debts run up in the ruinous Mengistu dictatorship. Remembering the catalysing spirit and chutzpah of Live Aid, Drummond helped to shape an initiative called Jubilee 2000, which looked to use the celebration of the millennium to give Africa a new start by cancelling billions of dollars of debt.

By 1997, Drummond had the unenviable task of trying to sell this idea to the White House. There wasn't time, he believed, to do it only through conventional lobbying, so he sought to enlist some alternative support. He had only one good contact. Drummond grew up in west London, where his father was an art dealer, but the family spent every holiday in the west of Ireland, and one of their neighbours there was Chris Blackwell, the legendary boss of Island Records. Through Blackwell, Drummond got a message to Bono. When the singer phoned him, Drummond recalls, his opening line was: "Hello, this is Bono. Doesn't the economic crisis in southeast Asia make debt cancellation impossible?" Half-thinking it was a mate winding him up with a fake Irish accent, Drummond nevertheless answered the question as best he could, and in so doing began a conversation that a decade later is still very much in progress. Drummond is unerringly modest and anxious at every turn to stress that his was only one small voice in a "great ecosystem of wonderful development advocacy" -- but still, without that call, you could certainly argue that $50bn of debt might never have been written off.

The genius of Jubilee 2000 was the understanding of how mobile communication and the Internet might transform protest. Huge amounts could be achieved cheaply out of one small office. Drummond is explaining how this worked as we drive up to a remote farm in the foothills of the snow-capped volcano Mount Meru, 50 miles west of Kilimanjaro. He is a fan of Google Earth, the software that allows you to telescope in on any spot on the planet, from any other spot. The last time he came up here he was with one of the founders of Google, Larry Page, and the perfectly named Larry Brilliant, the director of their charitable arm, They were here to see the joined-up possibilities of working development.

The Google team came to earth in a farmyard at the top of a fertile valley in Masai country. Loishiye Meshurie lives here with his wife and three children. Meshurie is something of an agrarian revolutionary. He is a pioneer of a plant called artemisia, the so-called "wonder herb" that can cure malaria. Up until 2005 artemisia only grew in southeast Asia, but with the help of TechnoServe, a charity that teaches best agricultural practice to smallholders, artemisia is now cultivated by 4,000 farmers in this corner of Tanzania. Meshurie walks us round his farm and describes a perfect vision of development in practice: he can sell the crop for a premium; it can be used locally to treat malaria cases (his youngest daughter successfully fought the disease with it); and with the profits he can send his children to school and invest in his farm. Meshurie helps to train 100 other farmers in growing the crop. Since Drummond was last here Meshurie has made an addition to his roof of which he is particularly proud: a $100 solar panel which not only powers a light bulb in the two-room house -- the first electricity in the great, quiet valley -- it allows him to charge his mobile phone.

The phone itself represents another crucial strand of progress. On the far hill is a mast; the reception is better here than in parts of London. Drummond loves the neatness of all this. "Communication is helping the farmers get their products to market, to keep track of prices. It helps clinics get the supply chain of drugs right. Some of it is happening through technology, some through investment."

It was this kind of story that, after their visit, prompted to sponsor a variety of projects that will give people like Loishiye Meshurie more access to knowledge. "They are working out smart ways to help people at a very local level in places like here, to access statistics about what is really happening in their area -- and what should be happening," Drummond says. And it is a good example, too, of one way that DATA has helped to shape investment here. "One thing we realised was: there are a lot of people at the beginning of the 21st century who are newly extremely wealthy. Particularly on the west coast of America. They have made a lot of money and have changed the world through software or the Internet or in investment. Now they want to change the world again. And when someone who is as demanding of results as Bill Gates gets into the sleepy backwater that development had been, it is sure to shake things up."

It was Gates who got DATA moving. After Jubilee 2000 Drummond was contracted to Oxfam, but his address book by now contained advisers to the G8, heads of state, and all the rightwing republicans that the NGOs found it hard to talk to. He felt, along with Bono and Bobby Shriver, a West Coast cousin of the Kennedy clan who had managed to open many doors in Washington, and an inspiring activist called Lucy Matthew, who had worked indefatigably on Jubilee 2000, that they should do something with these numbers, that the work they had begun had to go on. With this in mind Drummond wrote to Bill Gates, to George Soros and to the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ed Scott. Each of them eventually gave $1m to set up DATA. Gates has subsequently suggested it was the best million dollars he ever spent.

When that funding came through, Drummond and Bono were already finding their way around the White House. Condoleezza Rice, in particular, was a fighter on their behalf. Drummond recalls a particular meeting with Rice at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001, the summer before 9/11, partly because it was a surreal occasion. The summit had been moved to an aircraft carrier because of fears that suicide bombers in planes might target the conference. "One morning Bob and Bono and I were sitting with Dr. Rice having a coffee outside, and she was suggesting that she thought Drop the Debt had been very effective and successful and they wanted to build on it. Suddenly out of the water comes a man in a frog suit. We all thought: is he a terrorist? He comes right up in his flippers and stares at us. And then he says to Bono: 'Are you Bono?' and Bono says yes. And he says to Dr. Rice: 'Are you the girl off the telly?' And she says: 'Well, kind of.' And he flops away."

There were several results of that "frogman" conversation: one was the extraordinary pledge from the Bush government to work toward 100 percent debt cancellation, another was that Drummond was seconded for several months to Washington, to help draft the parameters of what became the president's $10bn Millennium Challenge Account, which rewarded good governance in Africa with capital investment. Drummond didn't have an office in Washington at the time, so he worked out of a Kinko's copy shop.

At the same time, he and Bono and Shriver were organising a Heart of America tour, a kind of magic bus roadshow of American states -- Lincoln, Nebraska to Nashville, Tennessee with Lance Armstrong, Warren Buffett, Ashley Judd, Bono and Shriver on board. "We did town hall debates about the AIDS crisis," he says. "As a result, in 2002 we got 10,000 Americans to contact the White House to ask for a historic AIDS initiative to be included in the 2003 State of the Union address."

Drummond is given to understatement. "It was a challenge at the time to have to say to the president of the United States that $10bn for Africa was not enough," he suggests. "In addition we wanted the AIDS programme. I was basically negotiating the terms of whether Bono would be in a photograph with Bush, which in the end he was, because we decided the terms of the deal were good enough." The terms of the deal were $15bn for AIDS in Africa, which has risen to $20bn. "We are," Drummond says, "currently looking at a re-authorisation of $50bn, to be spent more widely on health, over the next five years."

Despite these successes, in his recent acclaimed book The Bottom Billion, the Oxford academic Paul Collier is less than flattering about the contribution made by Bono and Geldof to the development debate. "Development buzz is generated by rock stars, celebrities and NGOs," he writes. "To its credit it does focus on the plight of the bottom billion. It is thanks to development buzz that Africa gets on the agenda of the G8...Unfortunately, although the plight of the bottom billion lends itself to simple moralising, the answers do not. It is a problem that needs to be hit with several policies at the same time, some of them counterintuitive. Don't look to development buzz to develop such an agenda: it is at times a headless heart."

The day after we have been out at Kilimanjaro we fly back to Dar es Salaam; the small plane is delayed nine hours, so we arrive at 4:30 a.m., Drummond having slept flat out on the floor of the airport. At eight he is due at an AIDS hospital to see Bono -- who has interrupted a family holiday in Kenya -- to make a film for an American Idol fundraiser.

DATA has never been shy of mass media. The hospital at which the film is being made is a Catholic mission which gives AIDS treatment to 32,000 people, with 3,000 new cases a month. Its free antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) are supplied by the Global Fund, and by George Bush's President's Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (Pepfar).

When we get there, Bono is sitting on a step of the hospital telling stories to camera with a little boy named Deloy. Deloy has lost his father and mother to AIDS in the past couple of years. He has a memory box, which he is sharing with the viewers of American Idol; in it is his father's rosary. Bono tells Deloy his own mother died when he was 13, so he knows a bit about how it feels. "Two pills a day would have saved your parents, Deloy," he says. Deloy is a Chelsea fan; he wants, he says quietly, to be a high court judge. "Do you believe in God?" Bono asks Deloy, "even after all that has happened to you?" Deloy nods. "Well, Deloy, God believes in you, too." With that hope in mind Bono hands over to Annie Lennox in Johannesburg. Before he goes he addresses the American Idol audience directly: "Remember: you can save a life tonight, but tomorrow you can change the world. Click on to Put on your marching boots, tell the politicians what you think..."

I'm standing with Drummond in the shade. When Bono is done with this performance -- which though familiar and staged is also sincere and direct -- he calls over to us: "Jamie, you have your worried face on rather than your really worried face. So that means it was probably not too bad."

As a result of events like the American Idol show -- which raised $60m --, the American wing of DATA, is now the biggest pressure group in America outside the National Rifle Association. It has a database of 2.5m supporters and it has been crucial, Drummond believes, in keeping up the pressure on the White House. He has no doubt of the complexity of the issues in kickstarting the Tanzanian economy, but without "buzz," without the simplification, in his view, nothing complicated happens. "What Bono is amazingly good at," he says, "is reminding people -- politicians, aid workers -- the reasons they came into this in the first place. He is an antidote to jadedness and cynicism."

When the filming has finished, the pair of them wander off to a church, where a wedding is in progress. I ask Bono about that first phone call, and he admits, laughing, he sometimes regrets having made it. "In the Eighties I was involved with charity, but I had the sense that there was a structural aspect of this poverty I was not getting." Jamie's explanation was like a calling. "It has become a vocational thing now."

He was always wary of the simplification of what Paul Collier calls "buzz." "You're a rock star; it's like being a bottle blonde with a cleavage." In meetings with finance ministers he knew he had to be the person in the room who knew the most. "People kept saying to me: how do you know all this stuff? And the organisation that Jamie put together is how I know it. He found the people who have made this organisation a hard little fist of facts. Any politician who meets a rock star, especially an Irish one, imagines, you know, they are going to bleed everywhere. Our approach was always scientific."

Drummond agrees. "Washington is a very sober place: you have to know your arguments more there than perhaps anywhere. It is imperial Rome -- the centre of power, for better or worse. But sometimes our policy got better too: they forced us to be a little tougher on governments and corruption."

Continued in Part 2...

© Observer/Guardian, 2008.

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