Unlikely pairing in Africa


Mission: Bono, lead singer of U2, and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill are visiting four nations to better understand how foreign aid is used, and how is can be used better.

May 25, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOWETO, South Africa - Walking the muddy streets of this poor black township, they make the most unlikely duo.

Irish rocker Bono, the Grammy Award-winning lead singer of U2, looks like he has slept in his clothes. He's unshaven, his hair a black mop, his eyes hidden behind his blue wraparound sunglasses.

By his side, the no-nonsense Republican Paul H. O'Neill, a former corporate executive turned U.S. Treasury secretary, is decked out in a well-pressed gray suit as if he were about to step into a board meeting.

But the pair has a shared mission: to understand how foreign aid is put to use in Africa and how it can be spent more wisely.

They looked for answers yesterday in the crooked alleys of this township of 1.5 million people, meeting with HIV-positive mothers and touring newly built houses for the homeless.

Bono, 42, whose real name is Paul Hewson, and O'Neill, 66, visited South Africa on the second leg of their four-nation tour of Africa. They arrived in South Africa from Ghana - where they managed to look different from each other even when wearing similar local garb. They are on their way to Uganda and Ethiopia next week.

The tour has been billed as a contest between the travelers' philosophies of foreign aid. O'Neill is well known for his criticism of aid programs that cost millions but have little to show for their efforts. Bono, who has used his fame to become one of the most outspoken advocates for the world's poor, wants to encourage the United States and Europe to spend more to combat Africa's woes, especially AIDS.

When the two met for the first time last year, O'Neill said he was impressed with Bono's knowledge of the continent. They later planned the trip to Africa.

They are clearly benefiting from the arrangement. O'Neill's tour is drawing far more media attention because of Bono's star power. And Bono, always at his side, is in a perfect position to use his more than gentle powers of persuasion to encourage O'Neill to see Africa his way.

Speaking about the need for more money to combat acquired immune deficiency syndrome in Africa, Bono turned to O'Neill and announced: "I think the secretary will be able to send one message back to the president. This is an emergency, isn't it?"

"We the world have got to deal with this problem. ... This is doable," O'Neill said, adding: "It may even be doable with the resources already available here."

Such exchanges highlighted the differences between the two travelers. Bono is the man with the bleeding heart. O'Neill is the man with his eye on the bottom line.

After visiting with HIV-positive mothers at a prenatal clinic in Soweto's Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, Bono emerged unable to express his emotions.

"I'm speechless, which is very difficult for an Irish rock star," he said. "I'm dumfounded."

O'Neill said he was moved as well but said he was baffled on learning that more money was being spent on AIDS prevention than treatment at the hospital.

"One of the things they teach you in medical school is triage, which means you treat the most important first, so the most important is obviously treatment for the people who have already been diagnosed," he said. "I think there is an essential question here about the priority choices of how money is being used and coming in here."

Later, they visited a U.S.-financed housing program in a shantytown where many families live in crowded shacks made of scrap metal, cardboard and plastic.

Bono treated the residents to a performance of his U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." A school group had started doing a dance to the hit when their tape recorder broke, and Bono finished singing the song himself while residents clapped along.

Even after Bono sang, many township residents acknowledged that they had no idea who Bono or his well-dressed friend was. Nonetheless, they were pleased by the visit.

"It's a good thing to see how Africa is," said Patrick Sihle, 18, who lives in shack with no water, electricity or toilet. "People are suffering here because they stay in tin houses and squatter camps."

"There is still a kind of apartheid here," Bono said, while walking down the street, surrounded by curious residents. "Nelson Mandela said it's a long road to freedom, and these people are not at the end of it."

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, many world leaders pledged to increase foreign aid to fight poverty in countries that may seek to harbor terrorists. The Bush administration and O'Neill drew criticism for questioning the need for more foreign aid spending.

Despite his reservations, Bush recently announced his Millennium Challenge Account, a program that will provide increased aid to countries that embrace democracy, promote greater productivity and make a more attractive investment climate. Bush has promised to boost U.S. foreign aid by $10 billion from 2004 to 2006.

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