05 February 2002
Getting The Melody Line Going
Every year one world personality has stood out at the World Economic Forum, writes Conor O'Clery of The Irish Times.
In the past the rich and famous have lionised Yasser Arafat, George Soros, Bill Gates, Ted Turner and Bill Clinton.
This year the focus was on an ageing Dublin lad call Paul Hewson, otherwise known as Bono, the rock star with a cause.
Prominent in his blue wrap-around glasses, Bono has been mobbed by autograph hunters among the elite in the Waldorf Astoria, has hunkered down with heads of state to discuss debt relief, and performed for star-struck chief executives. He shared one panel with the Queen of Jordan and two Nobel winners, another with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, a third with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
Mr O'Neill called the 41-year-old U2 singer "my good friend Bono" and said he had arranged to travel to Africa with him later this year. "He's a good friend of mine," said US Senator Patrick Leahy, "he can meet with the Pope one day and Jesse Helms on another".
When he came to meet journalists confined to the adjoining Intercontinental Hotel, I asked him if he felt he was getting through to the US politicians, to whom he now had unprecedented access.
"The great thing about hanging out with Republicans," he said, "is that it is very, very, very unhip for both of us. There's a kind of parity of pain there. A lot of conservatives come from the religious community and I'm good at pushing those buttons. When you put together the student movement which I'm more familiar with and the street activists, with the church, you really do scare the shit out of politicians." He went to people in power because he couldn't get the "melody line of the argument going quickly enough," he said, "because I couldn't get on TV." He was impressing on them the analogy of the Marshall Plan, when the US cancelled debt and invested in Europe after the second World War as a bulwark against Sovietisation.
"Africa is in the same kind of vulnerable position that Europe was. I think it would be very smart for the West to invest in preventing the fires rather than putting them out, which will be a lot more expensive
He said his "Drop the Debt" campaign had been meeting every month with European leaders, and at the Forum Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cretien had told him that Africa would be centre stage at the G8 summit in Canada this year. "I think this area of debt and trade is interesting to politicians because it doesn't cost them as much," he said. Major nations have so far forgiven $40 billion in debt. "It really has an impact on lives," said the U2 star.
"There are three times the number of children going to school in Uganda since their debt was cancelled."
If Bono was the great persuader at the Forum, Bill Gates was the great doer. The Microsoft head, who at previous Davos summits dazzled CEOs about the potential of the Internet, has been sought out this time for his views on disease among the world's poor.
This is a topic on which Bill Gates, once regarded as a cold-hearted nerd who had no time for philanthropy, can speak with authority, as the $24 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote health care in the developing world is now the biggest philanthropic institution in history.
In response to the same question about the effectiveness of the debate in the Waldorf Astoria, Mr Gates said that "at international meetings the ritual measuring of thoughts sets the goals", and he thought there was a good chance "of putting a coalition together to raise things to a new level". But he warned: "Private philantrophy is no substitute for governmental action. The scale of the problem is just way too great for this to be done even with the kind of increase we'll see in personal philanthropy. If governments pull back, then the AIDs epidemic absolutely will not be stopped, and the whole view of the rich world and how they behave to the world at large will be irredeemable." He added: "If the US doesn't do it, it's not going to happen, because the US is the laggard." Health care spending should be dramatically increased, because when parents believed their children would live longer they would save more and reproduce less. "We know it works," he said.
On Saturday the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged another $50 million for anti-AIDS efforts.
Bono said that he would travel to Africa later this year with the US Treasury Secretary, whose appearance with the singer and Mr Gates on a panel called "Building Public Support for Development" attracted a capacity audience.
Mr O'Neill told the assembled politicians and CEOs that the US administration was reluctant to commit to specific international targets for foreign aid. "The essential question," he said, "is how do we help people create the circumstances (so they) can create wealth and not just be the objects of our pity".
He asked rhetorically: "Why is it that the spread between those of us who are privileged and those of us who are not is so incomprehensively large? My answer to that question is - up until now we've lacked imagination and leadership." From the floor Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy insisted on being heard.
Read the rest of of this Irish Times article at scripts.ireland.com