'I'm not about entertainment right now'
In an interview with Glenn Somerville of Reuters, Bono discusses the distinction between singer and activist.
PRETORIA, South Africa. Africa is a continent on fire from the misery of debt, poverty and disease and rich Western nations would be well-advised to offer more help now to quench the flames, Irish rock singer Bono said on Saturday.
In an interview with Reuters, Bono praised his traveling companion, U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and showed his own resolve to press for more help for AIDS-racked nations like South Africa and for deeply indebted countries.
"I like Secretary O'Neill, personally, a lot. I don't like the fact that the United States hasn't been giving as much aid over the past 10-20 years as other countries," Bono said.
The unlikely duo are halfway through an 11-day, four-nation African tour that is billed as part fact-finding and part a mission to highlight the staggering dimensions of the problems throughout Africa.
Even in South Africa, by far the wealthiest nation in the region, government statistics say 29 percent of people are out of work. Unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 40 percent.
Bono, casually dressed as always and with his trademark wraparound blue glasses, said he has been engaged in continual discussion with the more formal O'Neill and said he accepts there is U.S. skepticism about aid because of the lack of success of past spending.
"So I'm saying 'well, if I can show you where it would be well spent, will you go there?' And he's saying yes, President Bush is saying yes at the moment, Congress is saying yes at the moment...so, I'm here and that's what it's all about," Bono said.
For all of Bono's easy-going nature and willingness to oblige his music fans, he leaves no doubt about the depth of his commitment to be an advocate for African aid.
He suggests more aid means more stability for a region that could be destabilized if doesn't get it.
"I think it's in the self-interest of the United States to support good government when it turns up on the African continent...I think it's cheaper to prevent the fires than to put them out later," Bono said.
"And believe me, this continent is on fire and the watering cans we're standing around with will not be enough to deal with the AIDS emergency, they will not be enough to deal with the pain that the people are feeling on the ground as their governments are bringing them into the free market."
Though he has twice during the tour led exuberant schoolchildren in choruses of one of his hit tunes, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," Bono said he tries to separate his role as singer and activist.
"I'm not about entertainment right now, I'm about mobilizing people to change the world. I can't change the world...but we are engaging with people who can," he said, alluding to his easy access to the halls of power in Washington, London and elsewhere.
Bono and O'Neill met about a year ago -- after some stalling by the treasury secretary, who initially doubted the singer's motives but now lauds him -- and decided to travel to Africa together.
Bono said the West had "raped and pillaged this continent" but had a chance to make the situation right through forgiveness of past debts and generous aid. But he deplored some recent U.S. actions like adding billions of dollars of subsidies for American farmers.
"We tell (Africans) they can't have trade subsidies if they want loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and then we put trade subsidies that guard our own agriculture," he complained. "I've no problem with protecting American farmers, just don't tell other people that they can't do the same."
There is just a hint of impatience in Bono's reply when asked to rate the importance of the music that he and his group U2 have been producing for two decades alongside his current crusade to help Africa.
"Singing, waking up the morning with a melody in my head, I have no choice over it, it's what I do the easiest," he said.
"This is work and it's serious work and it's work that affects the lives of millions of people. You have to take it seriously."