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Bono versus Mwenda

This post is part of a series of posts from TEDAfrica in 2007. It doesn’t make much sense without reading this earlier post on a talk by Andrew Mwenda at the same conference.

The second session opens with a remarkable piece of film, an excerpt from a stop-motion animation titled, “Only the Hand that Erases Can Write the True Thing”. It’s a haunting and moving piece, but i’s a bit jarring before we move into the rest of the session, which opens as a rebuttal of the first session.

Bono is the first speaker for the second session and he comes bringing greetings from Chancellor Angela Merkel, a video greeing that connects the G8’s meeting with TED’s meeting. She’s meeting with leaders of NEPAD and with President John Kufuor. She acknowledges dramatic African developments – the reduction in armed conflict, a 5% growth rate in several nations, an increase in the number of democracies on the continent. Yet, there’s still dreadful poverty, irregularities in Nigeria’s elections, and the ongoing situations in Zimbabwe and Darfur.

Bono takes the stage afterwards and says, “Try telling Chancellor Merkel that the Marshal plan was a load of crap.” He notes that Germany has been spending 4% of its economy to enable reunification. “Germans know better than anyone in the world how aid can work.” And he argues that the Marshall plan is “the best example of America intervening in a strategic way.”

Bono’s talk is a response to the “Mwenda plan” – a reference to Andrew Mwenda’s critique of foreign aid. He says he’s not sure there is a plan, and accuses Mwenda, in a swipe, of being a comedian – getting a laugh by pointing to the thing in the room no one will talk about. He argues that the money Mwenda complains about – $600 billion in the past 30-40 years – is really a very small amount of money, about $14 dollars per African over the past 50 years. (That doesn’t sound right to me – with $600 billion given and a current continental population of 900 million points to $600-700 per living African… but I don’t have historical population figures…)

The cold war was fought in Africa, Bono reminds us, and that we bear responsibility for supporting kleptocracies like Mobutu’s regime – “I don’t think its charity to not ask Mobutu’s grandchildren to pay it back.” He talks about his work on DATA – “Debt, AIDS and Trade Africa”, which he tells us can also be read as “Democracy and Transparency for Africa.” He explains that this came about through his attempts to get a meeting with George W. Bush. Meeting with Paul O’Neill, he confronted an ALCOA alum who’d done business in Africa, a realist who told him, “You’re crazy if you are asking for money so African leaders can decorate presidential palaces.”

The resulting conversations led to the Millenium Challenge Account, which has helped turn US aid from a historic low of 0.1%, half of which had gone to Israel and Egypt… and Bono argues that MCA is all about starting businesses.

Investment in Ireland has led to a very poor country becoming one of the wealthiest in the world. The key factor is a highly educated population. “I was educated by the state – there are some public goods worth spending for today.” He congratulates the US for writing a big check – $30 billion – and for enabling debt cancellation, which is letting 20 million people go to school.”I don’t want to be a defender of Museveni, but there are three times as many children going to school because of debt cancellation.”

Bono fields a couple of questions, two of them quite hostile. One notes, “a certain portrayal as Africans as unable to think, empty,” an accusation that clearly stings. Bono responds that he’s clearly done a poor job of showing his esteem for the continent, and notes, “I don’t think about Africans in any other way than I think about irish people.” A question from Derrick Ashong about how Africa can leverage its cultural patrimony gets a happier response: he notes that Irish culture isn’t a northern European culture, and that many traditional Irish melodies can be traced directly to Morocco – he illustrates with a short piece of song. “There’s a definite African heritage, a connection between Celtic and Coptic culture.” He leaves the stage to a standing ovation.

25 thoughts on “Bono versus Mwenda”

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  3. Re: $14 dollars per African over the past 50 years. (That doesn’t sound right to me – with $600 billion given and a current continental population of 900 million points to $600-700 per living African… but I don’t have historical population figures…)

    Jeffrey Sachs quotes the $14 per head figure as ‘per head per year’… so, divide your $600-700 by 50 years and it comes close to $14.

    As Luis says…

  4. Andrea Bohnstedt

    Africa is not poor at all – just most Africans are.

    The amount of capital that gets stolen and funneled out of the continent is mindboggling. So throwing more money at it Bono-style is not going to solve the problem, and his approach is also worryingly simplistic for what is a hugely complex issue. Asking for a Marshall Plan like Germany received after WWII is misguiding, because the situation is very different – Germany was a country that could make use of that approach because it had strong institutions and a well-trained and educated labour force, and needed a temporary boost to recover from the war and go back to ‘normal’.

    Africa’s future will never be in charity. I think it’d be well worth paying more attention to why it hasn’t worked in the past, which was not just because of the cold war – aid is an industry, with jobs, and budgets attached. But unless other industries, it doesn’t need to subject its products to a market, and always evaluates itself. If aid organisations ever eliminated poverty as they claim they want to do, they’d be out of a job. The proliferation of aid organisations, NGOs etc. have also created a veritable aid/NGO/dependency culture in Africa, with lots of people who think in terms of setting up an NGO rather than a business.

    I’m tired tired tired of hearing aging rock musicians (who don’t even have it in them to invite a few of Africa’s many amazing musicians to their party-in-the-park-awareness-raising concerts) define what’s what in Africa. There are far more interesting voices like Kenya’s James Shikwati, Andrew Mwenda (the Ugandan government’s budget, by the way, is financed to a good 40% by donors), and a great number of business stories.

    Sorry, got a bit carried away here …..

  5. Yes, Andrea you got carried away and you made a very wrong comment. The Party in the Park awareness Concerts, notably the upcoming one in Rostock Germany on Thursday hosts 9!!! African Bands and several African and 3rd World speakers among them the current Nobel Peace price recipient. Please inform yourself before you judge. Be more careful with that.

  6. Good for the Rostock concerts,and even better for the musicians. The Live8 concerts in 2005 invited a few African musicians as an afterthought, and had them play in, wait for this, an artificial rain forest in the UK. Interesting symbolism.

    Quite frankly, I’ve stopped looking at the celebrity circus ‘doing something about Africa’. It’s become very fashionable, but I don’t think it holds the solution, and most celebrities speaking ‘for Africa’ have very little understanding of what’s going on in politics and economics. The real issues are elsewhere, and they are complex, technical and uncomfortable. Why are we still talking about concerts?

    Regards from Nairobi.

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  11. Without the attention drawn to the desperate poverty of many lives, especially in Africa, by Bono and other celebs most of the world would be blithely ignoring the whole situation.

    Celebs attract attention, and attention is a valuable commodity so it is great that they deflect some of this attention onto the real needs of others. As far as I see, Bono and others are busily leveraging a variety of paths towards improving conditions in poor countries – debt relief, trade conditions and investment are part of the mix as well as aid.

    I don’t think that celebs DO over-simplify. They do what they can to mobilise support. Teachers teach, singers give concerts. Let’s value all of it.

    Right now in Tanzania, there’s an Australian woman mobilising donors to support a network of free schools she is setting up. This year she has 870 kids and is building a second school. She can’t wait for a venture capitalist to invest in education, she’s asking for donations. That’s aid. Won’t ‘solve’ anything will it? Useless really, isn’t it?

    TEd didn’t invite her to tell her story, though she is right there in Arusha. I guess it wasn’t a sexy new story. Just someone with a vision, talent and the capacity for hard work over the long haul.


  12. “Every PR is good PR”. How entertaining it is, in raising awareness for Africa’s potential and problems it’s not Bono OR Mwenda but Bono AND Mwenda AND AND AND…

    Most people, including business people, in the West have never been to Africa. I think the more awareness is raised of all different facets of Africa, the better. Africa’s nice face for tourism, problematic face for donations and potential face for business.

    Just my “cooperation is better than conflict” philosophy…
    Best Juergen
    http://www.business4good.org Blog

  13. Gillian, the woman from St. Jude School actually had quite a presence at TED as an attendee – no, she didn’t speak on stage, but she led a tour of the school and took a number of attendees on the school bus home from school so they could see where the schoolchildren lived. I think many of the attendees learned a great deal about her project.

  14. Ethan,

    It’s great to hear that Gemma was a welcome presence at the conference. Her project is probably one of the most successful in Africa. Who knows how big it will get? I think her larger vision is for a network of schools, educating bright children from the poorest families. The future leaders of Tanzania.

    She was just recently awarded an Order of Australia — it all helps bring attention and resources to the School of St Jude.

    Great blog Ethan! I’m so grateful for your detailed reporting that is available nowhere else.

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  19. I’ve heard some “loud sounding nothings” from someone i think called bono or what_completly misleading the continent in the whole 21st century. What is aid Without institutions? Not enhancing corruptions, lavish lifestyles of dictators, dependency syndrome, indebtendness and a lot more of that. Perhaps a whole lot more organised theft come to my country Uganda. This should stop, period!

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  21. For those who turned hard against Bono, it’s worth reading Jeff Sachs’ book, The End of Poverty. He talks in detail about specific targets for aid (about $70 per person per year, about 0.6% of GNP for the top 25 economies in the world, distributed not just to Africans but also to Southern Asians and unique countries such as Bolivia), the effect of each input (in essence, bringing social institutions to the point where there are no people living below an income level of $2 a day, basically anyone in the “extreme poverty” category), the neccessary problems being combated (AIDS, historical and future ecological devastation, infrastructure, health, education, and inability to get basic industry such as agriculture to work)

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  23. Shalala Oliver Sepiso

    I was about to say what is this article talking about when I read the very first comment and now I see one has to read elsewhere to see the context. I link to the first article would have helped.

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