On the stage of LiveAid in 1985, U2 broke through to a larger audience with an emotional performance of a song that declared, “I’m wide awake – I’m not sleeping.” It presaged decades of activism for the band’s charismatic frontman, Bono.
The plight of Africans has long been at the center of his concerns, from early work to oppose South African Apartheid to more recent campaigns like ONE (advocating increased government aid to Africa).
Over the past year, it has become apparent that, while Bono is not changing his focus, he is singing a different tune.
“Aid is just a stop-gap,” he said at Georgetown University, “Entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid…. In dealing with poverty here and around the world, welfare and foreign aid are a Band-Aid. Free enterprise is a cure.”
In the same talk, he laughed and put his head in his hands, “Rock star preaches capitalism. Wow. Sometimes I hear myself and I just can’t believe it!”
It’s only tough to believe because most celebrities treat their philanthropy as a pose. Being identified with a good cause is more important than achieving real outcomes.
By contrast, Bono has been visibly on a quest to actually improve the world. He has been willing to discuss his issues with people from all walks of life and all political perspectives, even when doing so brought bad P.R.
Of course, some of the roads he’s walked down, were paved with good intentions, but led to dead ends.
An idealist’s instinct is to believe we can rally behind a Big Solution. But the way the Big Solution is designed never mirrors how it is implemented. Delivering and administering aid invariably breeds corruption, or has unintended consequences upon the population being served.
Think of how food aid can undermine local agriculture markets. Sometimes emergency relief efforts are essential, but food aid often has the effect of destroying the livelihoods of those farmers who have been investing in what could be a sustainable solution to their communities’ needs.
That was the case during a drought in Ethiopia in 2003. Foreign aid programs brought in American corn instead of funding distribution of locally grown food that was actually in supply due to a strong harvest the previous year.
The more well-funded the foreign aid bureaucracy in a given country, the more it distorts the labor market. Instead of becoming entrepreneurs and doctors – professions that solve real human needs – many of the best and brightest in African universities aspire, above all, for a cozy job within a well-funded bureaucracy. After all, that’s where the money is.
Aid programs that rely upon – and thereby empower – the administrative state tend to ossify democratic processes. Rulers like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe have exploited the largess extracted from western donors to undermine political rivals and entrench themselves in power.
If Africa is to see improved living conditions in the coming decades, the energy must come from the bottom up.
There are signs of hope. Some African countries, Rwanda most notably, have been climbing up the Economic Freedom of the World index while making a corresponding jump in economic growth (if not political rights).
The distinguished Ghanaian economist George Ayittey speaks of an increasingly entrepreneurial attitude among the rising “Cheetah generation,” who take a pragmatic approach to improving their lot, in contrast with their elders who argued for state-led remedies to old, persistent problems.
Just last month, Students for Liberty – a privately funded organization which has worked closely with my organization to expand its presence in Africa – held its first conference in Africa.
More than 300 university-age Africans showed up to discuss how free-market policies can change Africa for the better, and how they can accelerate a pro-liberty youth movement in their countries.
There are many reasons for optimism across the dark continent.
A new one is surely that Bono is bringing his credibility to the message that it is free enterprise – not government largess – that will ultimately alight Africa with the glow of prosperity and progress.
Brad Lips is the CEO of Atlas Network, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit championing effective think tank research and advocacy among its 481 partner organizations in 96 countries.