Bono: Capitalist tool?

U2's frontman and Forbes media: Strange bedfellows for the globalization set

Published August 7, 2006 7:54PM (EDT)

If you had told me, when I was a junior in college annoying the girls in the apartment next door by playing U2's "War" at absurdly high volume, over and over again, until the lyrics of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" were permanently etched into my brain, that 25 years later Bono would have been rumored to be on the shortlist for both a Nobel Peace Prize and the position of World Bank president, I would have been, like, "Whoa, man." But if you'd followed that up by telling me he would also be a member of an investment group buying a sizable stake in Forbes Media, you would have started to seriously freak me out.

It's awfully tempting to look at this media play and start cracking jokes about how Forbes magazine is going to go all-out on a campaign for debt relief for Africa and increased foreign aid for HIV prevention. That would be something of an editorial revolution, since Steve Forbes, the publisher, is on record as critiquing Bono's approach to helping out the world's poor and sick. As he wrote in his column just a few months ago:

Bono's "emphasis on giving more money to benighted countries is misbegotten. Most of it will be wasted, and despite 'safeguards' all too much of it will be siphoned off by corrupt politicos and bureaucrats. Africa has received more than $400 billion in aid since 1960, yet per capita income has declined. No other area of the world has suffered such a regression. Blair, Bono et al. should be focusing on measures that would allow sub-Saharan Africa's existing entrepreneurial energies to put their countries on the path of rapid, India-China-Pacific-Rim-like economic growth. There are huge barriers blocking those who could catapult Africa's poor nations onto an economic fast track."

Don't bet the house on Mr. "Capitalist Tool" Forbes changing his tune. This purchase of a stake in Forbes Media by Elevation, the investment group of which Bono is a member, doesn't seem to be a question of editorial philosophy -- Elevation seems far more enchanted by the millions of visitors that the Forbes Web site attracts every day.

But still, it's not often that you get handed a plate of irony as tasty as this one. Bono wrote the introduction to development economist Jeffrey Sachs' "End of Poverty," which calls for precisely the kind of massive foreign-aid increases and direct government interventions that are so antithetical to Forbesian ideology. And while on the one hand it is puerile to think that privatization and deregulation can turn Somalia or Rwanda into China or India, it's also quite true that past decades are littered with failed attempts to use aid money to help Africans escape their poverty trap.

Maybe the real significance of the Bono-Forbes connection is that just the fact that Bono is even tangentially involved is an excuse to revisit the challenges faced by sub-Saharan Africa once again. Underpinning the efforts of Sachs and Bono is a fundamentally optimistic mindset -- yes, they concede, many previous efforts have failed. But smart people learn from their mistakes, and if we keep trying, we can figure out ways to improve public welfare in previously "benighted" countries. As Forbes magazine once reported, Bono's efforts in recent years were instrumental in pointing out the utterly cockeyed nuttiness that African nations owed more to the developed world in annual debt repayments than they were receiving in foreign aid. That's clearly a "huge barrier" to development, and it's not one that further deregulation would do a darn thing to address.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Africa Bono Globalization How The World Works