NEW YORK – A rock star and a treasury secretary. An unlikely pair on an unusual mission. Ten days in Africa visiting some of the most destitute areas in the world.
U2 frontman Bono has got Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill baking cookies in Ghana, and wearing traditional robes, all in an effort to talk O'Neill into committing more government aid and debt relief to the world's poorest countries.
"He's just not a fan of aid that's wasted and a lot of U.S. aid in the past hasn't been as effective as it should be," Bono said of his dealings with O'Neill. "What I am telling him is there are no circumstances, there are new governments in place where there is democracy, where there is good governance. In these cases, let's really get behind these nations. Let's see some success stories in Africa."
Bono told Fox News that infrastructure, including water and roads, as well as free and fair trade, are needed in African nations before private investment — O'Neill's preferred form of assistance — can work. He said that a base line of development is where O'Neill and the U.S. government can do the most good.
Bono has achieved icon status above and beyond the average rock star. He started off with Live Aid in 1985, but figured that persuading governments to relieve debt is easier and more effective than trying to get contributions through the bureaucracy of world poverty.
Is it all an act? His admirers say no way.
"There are a lot easier ways for a rock star to get publicity. You don't have to go to Africa. If Bono asks for a press conference, he will have journalists from all over the world there," said Anthony Dicurtis of Rolling Stone magazine.
O'Neill is not Bono's first potential convert. He has courted other leaders, from the world's second-richest man Bill Gates to one of the Senate's longest-serving and most influential members, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
Helms, who is retiring this year, apologized in a recent speech for not doing enough to help prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa, which is now at epidemic proportions, and credited Bono with showing him the light. Helms went from calling recipient nations of foreign aid "ratholes" to calling for $500 million in aid to be given to HIV-positive African babies.
Earlier this year, Bono had a dress rehearsal for his trip with O'Neill, taking economist Jeffrey Sachs and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to Africa.
Bono has also stood with President Bush when the president pledged earlier this year an extra $5 billion a year in foreign aid to countries trying to achieve economic and democratic reforms.
Making sure the world sees him as both an activist and a rock star, Bono can jump from events like the World Economic Forum to the halftime show at the Superbowl in a matter of hours. And, he said, he doesn't have to sell out his rock-star image to do it.
"I try not to play stereotypes. These are just caricatures," he said. "If rock and roll means anything, to me and to a lot of people who listen to it, it means liberation, basic freedom."
"It's genuine with him. He is an Irish poet, he is a romantic, he is a pop star. He is a lover, a cool guy. Every guy would want to hang out with Bono. He's got charisma," said Bob Guccione Jr., editor of Gear magazine.
When asked whether he has lost the support of traditionally left-leaning groups because of his advocacy to a Republican government, Bono said it was "smart" of him to take their concerns to ears that would not traditionally listen to such groups.
"These people's lives are too important — there are millions of lives hanging in the balance — and they are too important to play politics with."