'Nothing's changed. But everything's changed.

5 Jun 2002
Treasury Secretary and Rock Star End Seriously Strange Tour of African Poverty, writes Paul Blustein of the Washington Post

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia For nine days, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and the rock star Bono have traveled through Africa viewing one scene of deprivation after another, and on the final day of their trip they are coming to the end of the road in more ways than one.

Their motorcade, which brought O'Neill and Bono to slums and mud hut villages in Ghana, South Africa and Uganda, wends its way down the dusty streets of the capital of Ethiopia, a country at the bottom of the world's income rankings. They pass neighborhoods of scrap metal shacks and people crouched under pieces of plastic sheeting, to visit a Catholic shelter for AIDS victims, abandoned children and other sick and dying people.

Dozens of patients, impervious to the flies on their faces, lie in beds a few inches apart. In another area, 50 ragged individuals wait for medical treatment. Sister Benedicta, a German nun who runs the shelter, says "three, four, five, six, seven" people die in this place every day. But the ones Bono and O'Neill are seeing are fortunate, she says, because thousands in Addis Ababa just die in the streets.

This is the depressing side of the Odd Couple Tour of Africa. As O'Neill and Bono move on to a more cheerful part of the shelter -- where orphans are scampering about -- their moods brighten and they resume the bantering that has punctuated other parts of their trip together.

When Bono removes his trademark wraparound blue shades and places them on a little girl whom O'Neill has picked up, the Treasury secretary cracks, "Now you see how funny you look?" The rock star strikes back a few minutes later with a dig about the Treasury chief's regular insistence that aid dollars must work effectively: When O'Neill presents the shelter with some kitchen appliances donated by the U.S. government, Bono warns Sister Benedicta, "He's going to expect measurable results!"

By some yardsticks, this trip, which ended Thursday, has accomplished little beyond political theater, the acerbic Treasury secretary bonding with the lead singer of the Irish group U2, one of the most popular rock bands of the past two decades. The $10 billion U.S. foreign aid budget is the lowest among wealthy nations as a percentage of gross domestic product, and O'Neill has derided the scant gains that have come from the hundreds of billions of dollars in assistance showered on poor countries over the past 50 years. By tramping through shantytowns and muddy fields with Bono, a knowledgeable veteran of the movement to eradicate poverty and debt burdens in the Third World, O'Neill has helped inoculate himself -- and the White House -- against charges of insensitivity to the plight of the destitute.

But the voyage has also provided a kaleidoscopic glimpse into Africa's misery, along with a public debate -- entertaining and blissfully free of wonk-speak -- about how best to alleviate poverty. As the trip progresses, it seems possible that something more momentous may result, perhaps an alliance between liberals and conservatives to launch a fresh assault on global poverty using less softheaded approaches than in the past. By the end of the tour -- the idea grew out of a meeting between the Treasury chief and Bono last year -- O'Neill is using words that could haunt the administration if not followed by action, vowing that problems such as the lack of clean water will be promptly addressed.

"If you were on this trip with us, and you weren't affected by what we saw," the Treasury secretary tells reporters, "you're a piece of wood or something."

The Boeing 757 chartered for the tour -- officially a government fact-finding mission -- took off from Frankfurt on May 20. Bono looked a tad haggard, having just flown from Dublin to the United States and back across the Atlantic, mainly to attend a bachelor party in New York for the Edge, U2's guitarist.

Picking up on the Odd Couple theme that the media has used in previewing the tour, Bono jokes that he will "definitely not" be playing the role of the fastidious Felix -- a self-evident point, since he is unshaven, sporting his shades and earrings and clad in dark red T-shirt and black safari jacket. O'Neill is wearing neatly pressed trousers, a crisp white shirt and burgundy tie, his silver hair immaculately combed. These contrasting images will remain throughout the journey.

Bono cannot resist. He and O'Neill are on their first "site visit" at an American-owned business facility in Accra, Ghana's capital. The herky-jerky motions of the man on the television monitor, whose image is being beamed live from the firm's headquarters in Lexington, Ky., bear too much resemblance to space shuttle videos for the rock star to take them seriously.

Told that the man on the screen is a U2 fan, Bono steps in front of the video camera and asks in a robotic monotone: "How long have you been orbiting the Earth? . . . We've heard of this place called Lexington, Kentucky. We hear you're the same as us."

The facility, owned by Affiliated Computer Services, employs about 900 people, mostly women, keying information into computers from American medical insurance forms. They are paid two to four times the average Ghanaian income of about 34 cents a day (with a few particularly productive workers garnering as much as $1 an hour). The wages may be paltry by Western standards, but they easily surpass the pay available to most of Ghana's 20 million people, O'Neill says. Bono praises the facility for helping to break down the "cliched and stereotypical view" of Africa as a continent of famine and poor productivity.

That evening, the rock star takes some members of the traveling party to an Accra neighborhood of ramshackle homes with corrugated metal roofs, open sewers and people sleeping in alleyways. In the van en route, Bono reports that during a meeting that day with Ghanaian President John Kufuor, O'Neill told the leader that "we've got to listen to you more" rather than trying to micromanage the economies of countries like Ghana. "This is the first day of our trip, and we've got the United States Treasury saying [to African leaders], 'It's time for a new relationship with you.' I nearly fell off my chair."

That bodes well, Bono believes, for the Bush administration's recent proposal to boost the U.S. aid budget by 50 percent. Noting that studies have shown much better results for aid projects that are designed locally, Bono speculates that O'Neill's views may be rooted in an anti-bureaucratic bent.

"He thinks like a business guy, and he wants a rate of return on the American dollar," Bono says. "But if this is a smoke screen, and some kind of rhetoric to hide American miserliness, I will be very, very disappointed. That's not the read I'm getting on Day One."

A Bono charm offensive with O'Neill materializes the next morning. The way to the Treasury secretary's heart is clearly through children -- he melts in their presence -- and one of his own offspring, 39-year-old Julie Kloo, is along on the trip. On a tour of a project that helped reduce malaria in an Accra slum by paving over a fetid muddy lane, O'Neill jovially introduces his daughter to a group of children: "This is my little girl." Bono gestures toward the blond Kloo and asks the kids, "Have you heard of Madonna?"

A Ghanaian air force propeller plane transports O'Neill and Bono in the afternoon to a much poorer rural area in the north, where they stop first at a shabby, hot hospital with 380 beds -- serving a population of 1.8 million.

Asked by O'Neill to name the hospital's most pressing problem, the medical director ponders for a moment before answering. He has a plethora of choices. The incubators, laundering and sterilization machines are broken down, as is the boiler plant that used to distribute oxygen and water. The medical director says he is most concerned about the hospital's lack of a backup power source, which means that when the electricity goes out -- as it often does -- everything shuts off, even in the operating room.

After a quick tour, Bono asks whether the hospital suffers from pilferage of medical supplies by its staff -- an unexpected question considering that he isn't the guy who is supposed to be obsessed about aid money being wasted. But "it's a real problem around Africa," he says. "When we argue that we need to get [expensive anti-AIDS drugs] here, someone always says it will just go into the wrong hands."

O'Neill's voice is full of wonder as he stands in a clearing one morning near Kolokolo-Yobo, a village outside the Ugandan capital of Kampala, a lush area dotted with five-foot-high termite mounds. The Treasury secretary, who is chatting with a group of dignitaries led by Ian Kyeyeune, chairman of the local council, says, "I was learning from the chairman this morning something I never heard before -- about the snake."

The snake?

As the dignitaries confirm, many local people have long believed that a snake controls their water supply. If the water supply is disturbed, the snake will bite them or divert their water elsewhere.

The snake legend is important because O'Neill and Bono have come to Kolokolo-Yobo to inspect a small water project -- a tap that provides clean water from a spring to 420 people. Bono is particularly eager to showcase this $1,000 project because the money was made available after foreign creditors forgave much of the government's debt.

But O'Neill has a few points to make, too. The secretary can't understand why such projects haven't been provided to all of Uganda's 24 million people, nearly half of whom lack access to clean water.

Clean water is a subject that O'Neill has been raising with increasing frequency as the trip progresses. Waterborne diseases cause serious damage to public health in developing countries, including the death each year of an estimated 1.5 million people -- mostly children younger than 5 -- from diarrhea.

Starting in Ghana, where he was appalled to see the difficulties people had in obtaining clean water, O'Neill has been questioning many of the officials he meets about the issue. The answers have aroused his indignation, because he is concluding that the problem should have been solved at relatively little expense years ago by the World Bank and other aid agencies.

The night before going to Kolokolo-Yobo, he did some rough calculations with Uganda's central bank governor. Estimating that a typical well would cost about $2,000 to drill, he reckoned that the entire country could have clean water for about $25 million. Since the World Bank is currently lending Uganda about $300 million a year, he wants to know: "What was so important that there wasn't $25 to $30 million to give everyone in Uganda clean water?

A couple of hours after leaving Kolokolo-Yobo, preparing to tour a dirt-floor primary school, the Treasury secretary reaches the breaking point when he is told that for much of the year, the students carry water from four miles away.

Just at that moment, Bono catches up with him, and the two have an exchange that leads to their biggest public blowup of the trip.

"They're collecting rain water here, and they have enough storage capacity for 10,000 liters, but in the dry season, the children carry the water four miles to bring it here," the Treasury secretary says disgustedly.

"Check this out," replies Bono, who has been talking to other school officials. "Even though the debt cancellation money has paid for classrooms and doubled enrollment, some of them are learning under trees, and worse, they're going hungry to learn. They come here, and they cannot afford to have lunch."

O'Neill can top that. "Do you know, five, six or even seven children are sharing one book," he tells the rock star, and he suggests that this provides more evidence of how aid has been squandered. Perhaps people in rich countries ought to "in effect, adopt children" by sending copies of children's books like those by Dr. Seuss, the Treasury secretary says. "We need to make this into an individual people thing, and not some cosmic stuff about billions of dollars."

"It is going to take billions of dollars," Bono retorts. "I think it's great to connect real people to other real people, but in the end, they're not going to send over porridge."

"No, no, no, no," O'Neill shoots back. "But if they understand, and they can see for sure that when they make a contribution, it ends up with books in the hands of children, it ends up with porridge in the stomachs of children -- it's different from saying, 'Send us a billion dollars,' and then you wonder where it disappears."

Dismayed, Bono approaches Kyeyeune, the local council chairman. "It was not a town in Ireland that came together and gave you a school," he says with a touch of asperity. "It was government to government. It was debt relief money. I think you have to tell that to the secretary." A few minutes later, he adds that O'Neill needs "a pair of glasses, and a new set of ears" if he doesn't understand that the school illustrates the need for big amounts of new aid and debt relief.

The following morning brings the most emotionally wrenching episode of the trip.

At a Kampala clinic for people infected with the virus that causes AIDS, a woman named Agnes Nyamayarwo tells how the scourge has affected her family: Her husband died of AIDS in 1992. After she learned of her own HIV-positive status, her 17-year-old son was teased by classmates to such an extent that he suffered a mental breakdown and vanished, never to be heard from again. Then a younger son, infected by her in his infancy, died a couple of years later at age 6. For her other children, she has composed a "memory book" of her life story to read after her death.

Moved by her testimony, and by songs that the patients sing, O'Neill suggests that Bono ought to show video clips of it at his concerts -- "and then," the Treasury secretary says emphatically, "there should be silence." To this, the rock star replies: "You sort out the money problems, and I'll sort out the music problems."

Over lunch the same day with representatives of non-governmental organizations, O'Neill vents anew about the slowness of the progress in raising African living standards. But the participants argue that he is naive to think that such problems can be overcome swiftly.

"It's not enough just to drop a well down in the middle of a community," says Thomas Overton of Save the Children. "It's been done lots in Africa before. You have to think of the maintenance of the wells. That's always been the biggest factor, skilled people to maintain the wells. What usually happens, and this happens all over Africa, is that there are no spare parts and the well falls apart."

Such arguments don't impress the Treasury secretary, a former CEO of Alcoa, who dismisses as defeatist the United Nations goal of halving global poverty by 2015.

"The way to make really great progress, more quickly than people think is possible, is by taking away excuses," he tells the NGO representatives.

"That's my aggravation, frankly, with the development community. It's always got tomorrow," he continues. "For people alive today, their tomorrows are going down, every damn day. How many millions of children are you going to lose between the ages of zero and 5 between now and 2015 because we don't do water?"

By the tour's last two days in Ethiopia, it is clear whom the African public adores most -- actor Chris Tucker (who starred, with Jackie Chan, in the "Rush Hour" movies). The 29-year-old Tucker joined the tour in Uganda at the behest of Bono's organization, which is hoping to recruit celebrities to advance causes such as AIDS prevention. As female students mob Tucker at an Addis Ababa vocational school, Bono approaches O'Neill and asks plaintively: "Do you want my autograph?"

Over drinks with reporters accompanying the tour the evening before departing Addis Ababa, O'Neill and Bono have one final, emotionally charged debate/lovefest.

If one issue still divides them, Bono says, it is his belief that "it's going to take a significant increase in aid to deal with the AIDS emergency and to deal with the problems of Africa." That translates into "a half-cent out of every dollar" in rich countries, he adds, alluding to the U.N.-backed goal for wealthy nations to devote 0.7 percent of gross domestic product to foreign aid. (Currently, the average figure stands at a little more than 0.2 percent.)

O'Neill could be the answer to one of the main obstacles to increasing aid from wealthy nations, Bono says. "Because they need to believe the money will get to the people. And I think he's the best insurance policy I've ever met that the money will be well spent."

But O'Neill scorns the U.N.'s numerical goal as absurdly arbitrary. He recalls how legendary U.S. labor leader Samuel Gompers, when asked what he wanted, said simply, "More."

"That's not where I come from," O'Neill says. "I'm a problem solver, and I want to start by knowing what do we need to do, and then I want to know, how can I do this in the most efficient possible way. And then I'm ready to go advocate the money."

Bono allows as how he could "surrender to that."

O'Neill presses on: "You know, what this guy has done -- which he deserves enormous credit for -- he's raised consciousness about unsustainable debt, and HIV/AIDS, into the public consciousness. And because of the time we've spent together -- you heard, he would surrender to my logic."

"More!" protests Bono, impishly raising his fist.

Ignoring the interruption, O'Neill says: "It's not because I want to be cheap. It's because I want to produce results. And I don't want to be part of the next false hope that doesn't produce results, just more spending.'

The flight home is a high-spirited affair, with O'Neill making a brief appearance wearing Bono's shades. When the plane stops at Ireland's Shannon Airport to drop off Bono, the entourage disembarks to say farewell before flying on to Washington. "One hundred and 15 pints of Guinness!" the rock star commands the startled barman in the airport pub.

A box materializes, full of T-shirts that Bono has ordered emblazoned with "The Odd Couple Tour of Africa 2002." Bono informs the crowd that the shirts were made in two days. "I call that a result," he crows.

O'Neill puts on the T-shirt over his starched white dress shirt.

And Bono is still wearing his shades.

"You know, nothing's changed. But everything's changed," Bono says. "I've got a funny feeling about this trip."


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