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U2 Interviews

Bono on global debt
© Newsweek 28.09.1999

One of the world's leading rock stars argues that help for the poorest is a pressing moral issue of our time

It's the kind of endorsement that would delight any campaign. Last week the pope met a clutch of celebrities in a demonstration of support for the cancellation of Third World debts. The Jubilee 2000 campaign is pressing the developed nations to wipe out the debts of more than 50 of the world's poorest countries to mark the millennium. Among the delegation who met the pope was Bono, lead singer of the Irish band U2. Afterward, he spoke to NEWSWEEK's William Underhill. Excerpts:

UNDERHILL: Why did you take up the Jubilee 2000 cause?
BONO: It began about 18 months ago. I had just made a speech to my band about how I wouldn't get distracted from our next record. Then along came this idea — that we could harness all this energy and sense of anticipation for what is really an arbitrary date and actually make something of it, so that when we wake up on Jan. 1, 2000, we'd feel that last night was more than just fireworks and champagne.

What is the movement's appeal?
It's so depressing to watch the nightly news and see that this suffering is never-ending. People put their hands in their pockets and yet it doesn't seem to be enough. That feeling of impotence can either lead to depression or anger. In my case it was anger. I was angry when I discovered that for every $1 in government aid to Africa the African countries owed $9 on their loans. I was overjoyed when we raised $200 million with LiveAid. Then I discovered that Africa pays $200 million a week servicing its debts. It would be incredible if 1999 could be remembered not for the destruction of two countries — Kosovo and East Timor — but for rebuilding 50 of the poorest nations on earth.

Your deadline is just three months away. Do you think you have a real chance of success?
Already Jubilee 2000 has put together what must be the broadest coalition since the ending of apartheid. You have economists like Jeffrey Sachs; pop stars like myself and Quincy Jones; churchmen like Billy Graham; the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Pope. The Cologne Initiative [a G7 proposal this summer to extend existing debt-relief programs] was a great start, but I would like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to see it as just the first stage. I believe the political will is there. I have spoken to Jim Wolfensohn [president of the World Bank] and I sense that he will go the distance if the politicians match him. When people are left out of the loop of potential prosperity they turn very easily to other ideologies. Let's have some preventive medicine before we have to spend 10 times as much on a cure.

The campaign has attracted scores of celebrities. What has been their impact?
As Bob Geldof has said, we can't command a constituency — but we are heard by one. And it's a very large one. I have to say that the people of influence I have met over the last six months have been surprisingly open. But I don't think they're open to me; it's to the idea. After a few minutes it is not a pop star they are hearing; it's an idea. Smart people know a great idea when they hear one. Paul Volcker [former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve] burst out laughing at the idea. He said "I hated it in '62, I hated it in '72." But he then went on to furnish me with the telephone numbers of people I could talk to. People know it's an idea whose time has come, awkward as it is for those in the banking community. For them, it's a central tenet not to cancel debts. But facing reality is another tenet. Africa is beyond a catastrophe. Everyone accepts that fact. If you are not going to get anything back in 10 years it's better to get nothing back now.

Critics say it's naive to assume that any savings from debt relief will be used on worthwhile projects.
Conditionality is crucial. We accept that. The onus has to be on the debtor countries to be transparent; to prove that the money freed up is going on infrastructure, health and education. If they can't, they won't enjoy debt relief. Sudan can't be relieved of its debts in the middle of a war.

Many of the ruling elites who first borrowed and misspent the money are still in power.
This is a stick as well as a carrot. It will encourage the new leadership in Africa, like Presidents Obasanjo [of Nigeria] and Mbeki [of South Africa], and mortify regimes who are not allowed to make use of debt relief because of their oppression of their own people.

What was the attitude of the pope?
He has been talking about this since 1987. The idea of Sabbath economics [including the relief of debts at regular intervals or "jubilees"] is at the very heart of Judeo-Christian thinking. The pope was saying that in all the fanfare and fireworks this millennium was also a jubilee year. At a certain point you have to face this as a moral, not an intellectual, question. At a time when planet Earth is enjoying a prosperity unimaginable 100 years ago it will say much about our moral torpor if we can't make this happen.

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