WASHINGTON – Rocker Bono has gone on dozens of sell-out tours around the world in his 20 years as front-man of multi-platinum band U2, but never like this before.
Bono is set to team up with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill for their first spring circuit tour, a 10-day trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, where the two will discuss debt relief and the HIV crisis that has hit nations like Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and Ethiopia.
The two leave next week, but the idea has been in the works for a year, ever since Bono asked to speak with the straight-edge, silver haired newcomer to the Treasury Department.
"I said, 'he just wants to use me and I don't have time for this,"' O'Neill recounted recently. He later relented and agreed to a 30-minute meeting which expanded into a 90-minute brainstorming session on how to address the region's problems. "He understood economic theory and he understood the impact of colonialism. He knew what it was like to go into an HIV-AIDS clinic and see three people in a bed all dying together and care about it and know it doesn't have to be that way."
Indeed, Bono's understanding dates back to 1984 when U2 participated in concerts to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Later, he and and his wife spent six weeks working in an orphanage there to learn first-hand how bad conditions were.
Since then, he has become a tireless advocate for Africa, first in a lengthy campaign to get the Group of Eight top industrial countries to provide greater debt relief for the world's poorest countries and now as the founder of Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa (DATA).
"I am a pest. I am a stone in the shoe of a lot of people living here in this town, a squeaky wheel," Bono said following a meeting with President Bush in March at which time the president proposed giving $40 billion in U.S. development aid to Africa over the next three years.
Bush's offer came with a demand that countries receiving the money help eliminate corruption and reform their economies, a condition that O'Neill has supported after seeing trillions of dollars in aid wasted.
Bono's visit with the president wasn't a first for the unexpected statesmen. He has traveled with Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is also a surgeon, to Africa, and convinced Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to support a $500 million program aimed at halting transmission in Africa of AIDS from pregnant mothers to their children.
"There is no reason why we cannot eliminate, or nearly eliminate, mother-to-child transmissions of AIDS," Helms said in a recent speech in which he also expressed his regret at earlier refusing to fund AIDS programs.
Rep. Sonny Callahan of Alabama, a key Republican on foreign aid matters in the House, has joked that Bono has spent so much time in his office lobbying for Africa that the two should be called the "the Sonny and Bono show."
During the trip, O'Neill and Bono will visit schools, AIDS clinics and various World Bank development projects. O'Neill acknowledges that Bono's participation will generate more press, which he can then use to promote the administration's agenda for development overhaul, including fighting poverty in nations that may be serving as breeding grounds for terrorism.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.