Rocker Leads Drive To Lift Third World Debt

15 Jun 2001
UIt's hard to imagine, writes Mark Memmott of USA TODAY, but Bono is a serious player on Third World debt, a vital issue that can numb even professional policy wonks.

By night, he's a long-haired, pierced-eared, combat boot-wearing superstar who spends two deafening hours whipping 20,000 screaming fans into a rock 'n' roll frenzy. By day, he still has the long hair, pierced ears and combat boots. But the fans he often sees are Washington powerbrokers who sport power ties or silk scarves and couldn't care less about listening to the lead singer of U2 perform the band's new hit, Elevation. Instead, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, World Bank President James Wolfensohn and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill want to hear what Bono has to say about helping the world's poorest nations climb out from under their crushing debts. That's right. Bono, 41, front man for one of the most successful bands of the past 20 years. It's hard to imagine, but Bono is a serious player on Third World debt, one of those vital but arcane issues that can numb even professional policy wonks.

That the Irish rocker has turned into a behind-the-scenes lobbyist respected by Republicans and Democrats alike is one of the more bizarre tales in Washington politics. Bono (pronounced Bawn-oh) deals with politicians ranging from liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California to the conservative Helms, who planned to drop in on a U2 concert in Washington this week. Strange as it might seem, Bono and Helms have bonded.

Wednesday, the senator hosted a lunch for Bono that nine other senators attended. As the group gathered, Bono told reporters he was "humbled" to be invited, and felt like an outsider in the ornate Capitol. Said Helms: "You'll never be an outsider. You'll always be a friend here."

No one is more bemused by the odd combination of his daytime crusade and nighttime gig than Bono. "I would accept the absurdity of having to listen to a rock star sounding off on economic matters," he says during an interview at a Washington hotel. "I think I'm looked at as an exotic creature at first when I walk into an office."

But that hasn't deterred him from squeezing in several such meetings this week while U2 is in the nation's capital.

And he sees an important link between the worlds of rock and politics. "Unless these types of issues become pop, they don't become political," Bono says. "As a performer, I understand it takes a picture of me with the Pope or a president to get debt cancellation on to the front pages. Otherwise it's just too obscure a melody line."

Debt-relief advocates say their cause comes down to two moral questions. First, is it right to ask 41 of the world's poorest nations to pay back nearly $200 billion in debt they accumulated over the past 30 to 40 years if much of the money was stolen by long-gone dictators propped up by the West during the Cold War? Second, is it fair to ask for repayment if just the burden of paying the interest costs cripples the nations' ability to improve their standards of living?

Most of the money is owed to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, global lending organizations financed mostly by taxpayer money from the United States and other rich nations. Some skeptics wonder whether forgiving the debts is wise. At the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this winter, record producer Brian Eno said he has "often asked my friend Bono" about what happens if the debts are forgiven, countries aren't held responsible, more money is lent and they end up back in debt.

Bono and other activists respond that strict conditions can help keep that from happening. Under a program begun in 1996, the IMF and World Bank are granting some debt relief to countries that adopt economic and social reforms. So far, those lenders have agreed to relieve 22 nations of debts totaling $34 billion. But there are strings attached. International monitors must be allowed to watch whether the savings go toward making people's lives better or into corrupt leaders' bank accounts. (Countries with repressive governments, such as Sudan, aren't eligible for relief.)

To those pushing the cause, much more needs to be done and it needs to be done quickly.

"In the poorest countries of the world, 40,000 people die each night from starvation or preventable diseases," says Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala. But in Africa alone, those nations spend about $200 million a week on just the interest on their debts, he says. The HIV/AIDS crisis there makes debt relief especially urgent, he says, to free up money for prevention and treatment programs.

Bachus was a driving force behind legislation last year to forgive $435 million in debt owed the U.S. government. Bachus and Bono met during that legislative effort, and the singer impressed the lawmaker "because he knew the issues backward and forward," Bachus says.

Bono started to question the morality of asking poor nations to repay the loans after the 1985 Live Aid concert, which raised more than $200 million for food aid to Africa. U2, which had mixed politics with music since Bono and four friends formed the band as Dublin teenagers in October 1976, was one of the show's stars. Shortly after, Bono and his wife, Ali, visited Ethiopia. They saw how quickly even $200 million in aid was depleted. They heard about the interest payments.

"We promised that we would never forget what we had been through," he said in a recent speech. "But of course, we did."

Then a few years ago he heard about a debt-relief movement. A group of social activists was inspired by the Bible's Book of Leviticus that proclaims a year of "jubilee" and calls for redemption of the poor's possessions. So they created an organization called Jubilee 2000 to push their cause. Bono says he was attracted "to this Biblical notion of jubilee -- the idea that you have the right to begin again."

He became a student of the debt-relief issue by learning from experts such as Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs. He used his celebrity to publicize the cause, most notably when he met with Pope John Paul II in 1999 and the pontiff, who supports the movement, donned the singer's sunglasses. A photo of that playful moment ran in newspapers around the world.

As Bono has gotten more involved and better informed, he has gained more credibility as a sincere advocate of debt relief by promoting his campaign in less-publicized ways. Often, he visits Washington or other capitals unannounced and with no entourage.

Two weeks ago, he left the stage in Buffalo late at night for a flight to Washington. The next morning, he met with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten. In the afternoon, he saw top aides at the Treasury Department. (President Bush supports the idea of further debt relief but has yet to say whether he will push the World Bank and IMF to move faster). Bono's goal that day: get to know the new administration "and let them know I'm not aligned" with either party, he says. Late that day, he was on a plane to Albany, N.Y., for a concert the next evening.

Bono "is exceptional, not only in his knowledge and his commitment but in his desire to work in a strategic and practical way," says Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser in the Clinton White House. Bono often lobbied Sperling.

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