WASHINGTON -- Rock star Bono and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's nine-day African poverty tour was like chicken soup for a bad cold: It made us feel good despite a lot of misery.
Also, it probably won't do any harm, and it might even do some good.
Among other good things, it gives a high profile and appealing face to a cause that Americans love to gripe about, foreign aid.
To hear the angry voices squawking over talk radio, you might think half of the federal budget, at least, goes to foreign aid. In fact, our current foreign aid budget of about $10 billion amounts to less than one-half of 1 percent of the overall budget. That's the lowest of all wealthy nations as a percentage of gross national product.
So, without much of a constituency in this country, the world's needy often must look to movie stars and other celebrities to help bring needed attention to the problems that foreign aid is intended to help.
Through Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa, the Bono-O'Neill tour visited families who were living in mud hut villages, scrap metal shacks and lean-tos covered with plastic sheeting. They visited abandoned children and dying AIDS patients in overcrowded Catholic shelters.
And they talked and argued and smiled for the cameras. Bono talked about how wealthy nations like the United States must do more and give more to help the poorest. Mr. O'Neill, visibly moved, nevertheless grumbled about scant gains in the "measurable results" of the past 50 years and the need for "problem-solving" approaches to African aid and development.
Is Bono doing some good? Or is he only, as some activists sniff, helping the Bush administration look better than it deserves to look? The proof will be in deeds to come, not only by the Bush administration, but also by the African nations and other Third World nations that the administration says it wants to help.
The United States poured billions into such nations throughout the Cold War, mainly to keep them from joining the communist bloc. The result has been billions of dollars in debt for the regimes that have inherited those nations.
Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, among others, has called for immediate relief from that debt burden, which sucks resources out of Africa and prevents leaders from spending what they need to fight today's problems.
Salih Booker, executive director of Washington's Africa Action, points out that the United States, as the dominant shareholder in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, should use its power to have that debt reduced or erased.
At the same time, African nations need to show how they can and will put that money to better use. Here, too, the world has changed since the Cold War days. Uganda, where Idi Amin once ruled with a notoriously bloody hand, now leads the continent in sensible and effective AIDS reduction. It has expanded its schools and boosted teacher pay to 27 times what it used to be. War-torn Mozambique's economy similarly produced a 10 percent growth rate last year.
Yet South Africa is still paying back more than $18 billion in loans accumulated by the old apartheid regime. Its neighbors are paying back more than $26 billion accumulated during the regional wars that the old regime enflamed during that period.
Security not for foreigners but for Americans was a major theme when President Bush met with Bono in the Oval Office in March and proposed the Millennium Challenge Account to help developing nations with more than $5 billion in aid over the next three years. Linking foreign aid to security wisely recognizes that the world has changed.
The Sept. 11 terror attacks dramatize how Americans cannot shrug off the problems of the rest of the world as easily as we used to.
We are the world's biggest superpower. We cannot comfortably expect the rest of the world to stay out of our lives when our policies inevitably intrude into their lives.
Although most of the Sept. 11 plotters came from middle-class families, Mr. Bush correctly noted that when governments like Afghanistan and others "fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terror."
Indeed. Remember how easily Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida has operated in Africa, particularly in Sudan and in Tanzania and Kenya, where two U.S. embassies were bombed?
Today the issue of national security offers Americans as good a reason to forgive Africa's debt as it did for Americans to help Africa build that debt. With a new set of incentives tailored to the post-Cold War era, the Bush administration can help developing nations to help themselves.
Increasingly, some developing nations are showing that they can make their own chicken soup, as long as they have some chickens.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun.