"This was the best punk rock band ever, because they actually invented something."
-- Bono, on the Ramones
The Statesman (Pt. 3)
New York Times,
September 18, 2005
[continued from part two...]
The next day, Bono flew to Berlin to rejoin the band for a gig at the arena Albert Speer built for the 1936 Olympics. There, standing in front of U2's towering electronic screen, with a vast crowd spread out before him on the playing field, Bono praised Chancellor Schröder's "leadership" on debt cancellation and fair trade but added that leadership also required committing an additional $50 billion a year in aid. "We are watching," he shouted. "We are waiting. If he can deliver this by 4 tomorrow, I believe you should welcome your chancellor back home a hero." He implored the crowd to send e-mail and text messages demanding action that very moment.
Bono flew back to Edinburgh that night in order to be at Gleneagles for the third and final day, when the communiqué would be issued. He finally met with Chirac and with Kofi Annan. During the afternoon, he started seeing leaks of the communiqué, which was drawing ever closer to his own agenda, the agenda he had tirelessly, and often fruitlessly, championed since 1999. After worrying for months, and as recently as a day or two before, that the summit would fail, and that he would look like a fool, the relief and the gratification had the force of epiphany. He remembers thinking, Oh, my God, this is really happening - and in real time. And he had one last coup de théâtre in him: he persuaded Blair, against G-8 tradition, to hold a formal signing ceremony so that each head signed a document with his own pen.
The "movement" did not, in general, share Bono's enthusiasm. Activists bitterly complained that the communiqué included no real progress on trade, no expansion of debt relief to additional countries, no movement by the Bush administration toward 0.7 percent. But when I saw Bono the following day in Paris, he was ebullient. The heads of state had promised that by 2010 they would increase aid to Africa by $25 billion a year, and aid worldwide by $50 billion a year. Schröder hadn't agreed to the airlines tax, but he had promised - perhaps not the world's most binding promise - that he would find a way to raise the money. They had extended debt relief to Nigeria, a goal activists had long sought. They had added to President Bush's commitment on malaria, so that the number of victims should be reduced by 85 percent by 2010. They had vowed to ensure that all children had free access to school by 2015. "I know how big this is," Bono said. "Even Jeff Sachs was emotional about it."
The next five years will offer Bono and Geldof and Sachs and Action Against Hunger and all the other activists the laboratory experiment they've been seeking. It's an experiment that needs to be tried, even if it seems likely to disappoint the advocates' hopes. In years past, aid has proved extraordinarily effective on issues like disease eradication (which makes the malaria initiative, for example, so important); the same cannot be said for promoting growth. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Nancy Birdsall, head of the generally liberal Center for Global Development, and two co-authors, asked why it was that Vietnam, long isolated from the West, has been growing so much faster than Nicaragua, a major recipient of aid. "The answers are internal," they wrote. "History and economic and political institutions have trumped other factors in determining economic success." The activists and the Bush administration now agree that large-scale aid should be directed not only at highly impoverished but also well-governed countries - those with strong "internals." But how many such countries are there? Quite a few, argues Sachs, who insists that it is poverty that causes corruption rather than the other way around. This debatable hypothesis will now receive its road test.
Bono left Gleneagles to meet the band in Paris. That night, before a sellout crowd of 80,000 in the Stade de France, he read a text, in French - a language he does not speak - listing the brave commitments of President Chirac, a figure few in the audience were likely to admire. The next morning, as motorcycle cops were leading Bono's van on a slalom ride through the Paris traffic, he turned to me and said, "Guess who called this morning to say he had seen the reviews?"
"I don't know. Blair?"
"No. Think what country we're in."
"Yeah. A lot of his people were at the concert last night. He said that he had heard about what I had said. He wants to work with us very closely."
No doubt he meant it. But then along came the grande vacance, and a few days after returning to Paris, Chirac was stricken with a mysterious illness that confined him to the hospital. It appeared that Chirac would not attend the United Nations summit meeting; nor could Chancellor Schröder, who was facing the fight of his political life in an election this weekend. With them went Bono's hopes for immediate progress on an airlines tax, or perhaps on trade. Things went from bad to worse. By the first week in September, Bono's friends in the Bush administration seemed fully prepared, even eager, to scuttle the long and windy statement on development prepared for the summit meeting. The White House prepared an edited draft that proposed to eliminate practically every pledge made by donor countries - even the very words "Millennium Development Goals."
And then Hurricane Katrina scrambled everything. When Bono called from his house on the Riviera in early September, he said, "I have to be sensitive about putting my hand in America's pocket at a time like this." He would, he said, be keeping a low profile in New York. He was feeling a bit more hopeful about the White House. The administration had climbed down just a bit from its rhetorical high horse, and it appeared that a face-saving compromise might be in the works. Jamie Drummond and his colleagues at DATA had also gotten a few choice bits about AIDS and education inserted into the American draft. But the whole episode was a reminder of how far the Bush administration remains from the rough consensus on development issues that obtains in much of the world. "I'm really bleak about the next six months," Bono said. "There could be a few black eyes for us and for our work, and criticism of working too close with these characters. But I'm sure it was the right thing to do."
It has been a frantic time, this year of Africa. The other members of the band love the cause, but they fret that Bono's hobby is eclipsing his day job. "The band has survived," Adam Clayton told me, "but there's been a price in terms of relationships." Bono has promised to let the world spin on its own axis for a while. But it can't be left alone for long; there's so much proselytizing still to do. Bono's next target is the American people: he expects to have an army of 10 million activists signed up for the One Campaign by 2008. He believes - he knows - that the American people would demand action on Africa if only someone would tell them the facts. "Middle America," he said to me one day. "Don't get me started. I love it."
James Traub, a contributing writer for the magazine, is at work on a book about the United Nations.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company.