Trying to Throw His Arms Around the World

It’s a shame Bono, lead singer for the rock band U2, never met Peter Bauer. The great development economist, who passed away last month, could have taught the pop star a thing or two.

Instead, last month we were subjected to the spectacle of Bono traipsing all over Africa, chiding the United States for its greed and materialism and periodically scolding U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill (who made the trip with him) for embracing third-world empowerment programs that might actually work (instead of pop-star approved foreign aid programs that merely feel good).

Peter Bauer spent his life defending the notion that trade, not aid, is the key to building wealth in the world’s poorest countries. For a long time, Bauer’s was a lonely voice in development circles. But he persevered, and as the decades passed, the evidence mounted in his favor. Aid didn’t stop poor countries from staying poor.

India, for example, long on the foreign aid dole, continued to slip into abject poverty. India was the single largest recipient of foreign aid in the latter half of the last century. Still, its poverty rates pushed 40 percent.

India’s economy is today revving for prosperity, thanks largely to punitive measures the U.S. took in the 1990s, which shut down aid in retaliation for India’s nuclear testing. A funny thing happened: The aid slowed down and the economy started up.

Other foreign aid stooges in sub-Saharan Africa haven’t been so lucky. After decades of loans and aid from the IMF, the World Bank and first world organizations, most of that region still starves and suffers in the hands of brutal dictators and bloody civil wars.

Contrast Africa to East Asia, where the embrace of free markets, commerce and trade have made economic powers of Hong Kong, Thailand and, increasingly, Vietnam.

Bono’s own Ireland, long the European family’s poor sibling, is today one of the brightest lights on the world stage, thanks largely to its lopping of corporate income taxes and embrace of a fiscal policy friendly to foreign investment.

Peter Bauer knew that the real way to eradicate poverty is through trade and commerce, not government-to-government transfers. Opening third-world countries to new markets empowers their citizens, breeds innovation and enterprise and creates wealth. Trade also fosters peace. It’s bad business, after all, to hate your customers. It’s worse business to kill them.

Bauer died a vindicated man. It’s too bad pop culture today looks to Bono for development advice, a man whose international economics bona-fides consist of a quick stint volunteering at an Ethiopian refugee camp, a handful of "international" tours, and lots and lots of concern.

Should he continue to exert the kind of influence that’s won him plaudits in The Washington Post, the New York Times, and on CNN, Bono’s good intentions will likely pave the road to a lasting and hellish African poverty.

There is also the terrorism angle.

In an on-air interview, Bono said to fawning CNN reporter Daryn Kagan, "…there is [sic] another 10 Afghanistans in Africa. I don’t think it is smart to wait until these countries blow up in our face ... it costs a lot more to put out the fires than it does to prevent them. That’s why we are here."

The poverty-terrorism connection is tenuous at best. Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were well-educated and middle class. Usama bin Laden is a multimillionaire, and his top lieutenants were a doctor and an engineer, respectively.

But even if there is a link between poverty and terrorism, foreign aid certainly isn’t the answer.

Egypt, long a hotbed of anti-Americanism and a copious source of Al Qaeda fighters, was the third biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in 2001. Considering that the madrassas that preach anti-American hate are on Egypt’s government payroll, it’s probably safe to say that U.S. foreign aid actually sponsors much of the spite coming from Egypt.

Indonesia, another flash point of Islamic fundamentalism, was fifth in the U.S. aid bounty. Jordan was sixth.

The difference between Bono’s activism and the activism of, say, Rosie O’Donnell or Barbara Streisand, is that Bono has managed to get the ear of some pretty important people. He has recently won over such disparate personalities as the Pope, Jesse Helms and Kofi Anan.

O’Neill has largely resisted his advances. Still, the Bush administration upped foreign aid expenditures by $5 billion this year, while showing no signs of removing tariffs on popular third world exports, like sugar and textiles. In fact, the White House reneged on a promise to Pakistan to lower tariffs on Pakistani textiles in exchange for help in the war on terrorism.

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel Of Mice and Men, Lennie Smalls is a gracious and good-hearted simpleton who inadvertently kills powerless creatures with his affection. Lennie gets so caught up in showering puppies and mice (and women) with his love, he’s oblivious to the fact that he’s hurting them.

I don’t doubt Bono’s sincerity. But someone needs to pull him aside and enroll him in a remedial economics course. Because the affection Bono wants us to shower on the developing world does nothing to help it, and in the end just might end up killing it.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He publishes the web log The Agitator.

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