Call me a fan, but Bono stands out. In the past three years, in talking to politicians, aid workers, activists and United Nations and development-bank officials, I have never heard a single suggestion that the U2 singer was involved with the plight of the world's poor for anything other than genuine concern. In part that's because he has convinced the professionals that he does his homework. It's one thing to hear celebrities talk about "doing something" for a cause. It's quite another to hear a rock star give a lecture on "HIPC conditionality," the terms under which the most highly indebted countries of the world are forgiven their loans.
Bono also wins plaudits because he's not easily typecast. Asking for more government funding for the developing world is a quick way to get applause from liberal constituencies. But Bono stresses a more subtle point, and one that often raises opposition on the political left. For many nations, exporting agricultural commodities and cheap T shirts is the best way to raise standards of living, yet as soon as they try to do so, protectionist lobbies in the First WorldFrench farmers, American textile firmsscream bloody murder. Bono isn't swayed. "There is no justification," he says, "for denying the very poorest countries market access."
More important, Bono has given a public face to the agenda of the developing world at an important moment. Within the next six months, crucial decisions will be made on the shape of the rich world's policies for poverty reduction. Next month in Monterrey, Mexico, President Bush and other leaders will gather to hash out the scale and terms of a new and expanded program of financial assistance to the poorest countries. In the fall a conference in Johannesburg will take stock of the progress toward the U.N.'s "millennium goals" to eliminate extreme poverty and increase access to education and health care.
But if these initiatives are to get anywhere and overcome the suspicions of those in Washington who are convinced there are no votes in foreign aid, they need a constituency. The poor of the world can't just rely on "the usual 'poverty is bad' liberals," notes Lucy Matthew, who works for DATA, the policy network that Bono founded.
The model for a new approach is Jubilee 2000, which campaigned with great success to reduce developing-world debt. Jubilee 2000 was based in Europe, not the U.S., and its foot soldiers were not liberal activists but churchgoers. I remember covering a huge demonstration at the 1999 G-8 summit in Cologne, Germany, that was led not by black-clad anarchists but by nuns singing hymns. Bono's support for the campaign was critical; he gave a patina of glamour to people who would otherwise have been dismissed as nice but deeply unfashionable.
Now he is convinced that the same coalition can be built in the U.S. In the past few months, Bono has consistently stressed the need for campaigners to work with church groups. Last week he told me of his determination to reach out to "grassroots conservative Republicans." The pitch to the Bush Administration for more foreign aid is deliberately aimed to appeal to both self-interest and idealism. The war against terrorism, Bono argues, needs to be accompanied by "the pursuit of a less dangerous world for Americans, one where 'America' is once again a great idea, contagious and inclusive."
Will that appeal work? I think it might. If my experience talking to people around the country in the past few months is a guide, Sept. 11 changed the way Americans think about international affairs. Far from Washington, issues of global health care, education and poverty are being discussedat church coffees and student discussion groupswith a new urgency. The days when professionals were considered to have a monopoly on wisdom are ending, thank God. And Bono's advocacy is an important part of that change. "He understands," says Trevor Neilson of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, "that the battle for development is going to be won at the backyard barbecue, not at the Council on Foreign Relations." Fire up the grill.