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U2 Interviews

Speech given by U2's Bono at the launch of NetAid  (during the UNDP 1999 Race Against Poverty Awards Ceremony) Sept 8 1999
© Bono 1999

Thank you Kofi Annan. Thank you Quincy Jones, for inviting me to be here tonight.

Let me start tonight by describing my own discomfort finding myself on a podium such as this. When celebrities speak out on political issues I get nervous. And I am one ! When musicians open their mouths to do anything but sing - I put my wallet in my boot. Celebrity can magnify, but it can also trivialize. But hey, the United Nations has its own contradictions to deal with - so I won't caricature you, if you don't characterise me.

I like being a rock singer. If music means anything to me it is liberation - sexual, spiritual, political. Rock is the noise that keeps me awake, stops me from falling asleep in the comfort this wild freedom some of us are enjoying on the eve of the 21st century.

I am here today for one simple reason: I want to see Live Aid through. In the 80s I was a proud part of the spoiled generation that brought you Live Aid, Band Aid, We Are The World, and all that stuff.

It was an amazing thing, that moment in time when Bob Geldof and a bunch of pop stars raised 200 million dollars! Then I learned that Africa spends 200 million dollars every week servicing its debt to the west. That made no sense to me. I literally could not understand what it meant. 200 million dollars a week in debt service ?? What does that mean ? It means that for every dollar in government grants to the poorest nations - the poor nations pay back nine dollars - just to service their loans.

Can I say that again ? For every dollar the wealthy nations give to the poorest, the poorest people pay us back nine dollars - just to service their loans. And bad loans - a lot of them to cracked despots and corrupt administrations. Who, like Mobutu laundered billions of dollars through Swiss bank accounts while his own people went hungry.

That is not the way it is supposed to be. In small town America, in England, in Ireland where I come from, the traditional banker is supposed to take pride in lending to his neighbours and take responsibility if he makes a bad loan. This is important, because a lot of people hear about debt cancellation and say - very common sense - look, if I borrow money from a bank, I have to pay it off. Why should these countries be any different ?

Well, fair enough. But, there is a BIG difference. If you borrow money from a bank to start a business and the business fails, you declare bankruptcy and the bank writes off the loss. What does NOT happen is that the bank goes after your children, your grandchildren, your grandmother. The bank doesn't seize your neighbour's home.

That used to happen. It was called the debtors prison. In the 19th century people who failed to pay back loans were thrown in jail. The west got rid of debtors prisons because it was inefficient as well as barbaric.

So, we abolished debtors prisons in the west. But we're still keeping entire countries in debtors prisons in the developing world. Is THAT not barbaric? Is that not inefficient? Is it not barbaric that Tanzania spends more on repaying its loans than it does on health and education combined ? Or, that the good people of Guyana who pay their debts have an average life expectancy of 47 years ?

Is it not economically inefficient ... because while the developing world is on its knees with such a debt burden it cannot stand up to take part in a world economy that needs new growth and new trade.

In Jubilee 2000, we want to take the energy that's going into New Year's Eve 1999 and the millennium celebrations and give it a meaningful goal. We think this is the only big idea - big enough to fill the shoes of this date.

We want the richest nations to Drop the Debts they are owed by the very poorest nations. It's mostly unpayable anyhow.

If the leaders of the G7 go all the way with us - and I believe they have the will - sometime in the year one billion people will get a chance at a fresh start. This is a real reason to celebrate New Year's Eve 1999.

History will be hard on us if we miss this opportunity. You know, everyone who looks at this comes away wanting it. So what's the problem ? The problem is its just so hard to change the way things have always been.

There is a unique set of players on the world stage right now. They have the script. They've already done some work on this. They just need a little prompting from you, to go the whole way.

I have talked with Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder and Bill Clinton. This idea has support from conservatives as well as liberal democrats. The US Treasury is taking this idea seriously. Larry Summers - he's smart - I know they're going to try and figure something out. Jim Wolfensohn from the World Bank - he's going to figure it out. The IMF don't need all the grief they're getting - they want change.

We have half of Harvard working on this project. Professor Jeffrey Sachs is up at 4am working on this. The Pope John Paul wants this to happen. The Dalai Lama wants this to happen. Economists, church folk of every creed, artists - we're going to be with the pontiff on the 23rd of September in Rome to say: its one hundred days to the millennium .... hurry up and cancel the debts.

The Muslims want this to happen - the Jews want this to happen. The whole concept of Jubilee is a Jewish idea. Evangelicals see it as devotional duty. UNICEF, Christian Aid, the International Medical Association want it to happen. Mohammad Ali is going to come back in the ring if this doesn't happen!

Throw in Quincy Jones and a bunch of rock stars and you've got quite a cocktail and as broad a based coalition as you could hope for. The sort of popular movement that brought about the end of apartheid, or slavery - if that's not too much hyperbole for you - but I'm not exaggerating. This is an economic slavery whose abolition we're talking about this evening.

So many extraordinary people here tonight in this room - a room that has played host to some of the most serious debates. A room designed to dissuade conflict and to promote talk. In every language under the sun. The UN knows more than anybody a level playing field is a prerequisite for peace.

It is inequality that creates conflict. It is conflict that creates refugees. And I have to stop for a second, right now, just to pause and to think about those people in East Timor. Can we just stand for a minute's silence and just think on their plight...... Thank you.

The UNDP says we can put an end to extreme poverty in this generation. I believe them. I'm grateful to NetAid, to their concerts, their websites, for helping to get this idea across. I'm grateful to you for listening.

If NetAid's mission is to persuade people from different places to look in the same direction, they made a good start when they introduced me to Wyclef Jean. This is cultural attache from Brooklyn, hip hop's ambassador without portfolio, and the honorable delegate from the kingdom of funk. America's most gifted - Wyclef Jean.


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