Once Aryan Skynet Goes Live It Doesn't Matter Who Pulled The Switch
Paul Hewson, known to the world as Bono, has carefully cultivated an image as the preeminent musical advocate for global social justice; and, beginning with his participation in the 1984 Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and U2’s performance the following year at Bob Geldof’s Live Aid benefit for Ethiopian famine relief, Bono has enjoyed a strange public association with philanthropic activity focused on Africa. However, as scholar Harry Browne explains in his critical study The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power), Bono’s commitment to an assortment of ostensibly charitable initiatives has neither been very consistent nor necessarily free of sinister motives.
After the eighties, the Africans seem to have slipped Bono’s mind until about the time the twenty-first century approached, at which point he affiliated himself with the cause of African debt cancellation. These efforts, in which “little was at stake in reality”, brought Bono into partnerships with such strange bedfellows as Jeffrey Sachs, planner of post-Soviet Russia’s neoliberal “shock therapy” treatment. Browne dispenses with sentiment and gets at the heart of the matter:
The upside was at least potentially just what Bono and supportive neoliberal economists such as Jeffrey Sachs promised: African economies, freed from some of their onerous, odious debt, in a better position to provide stability and infrastructure for foreign investment. Moves toward debt relief in the poorest parts of Africa wouldn’t discommode the global economy, though they were unlikely to do it much good either; and once you factored in the feel-good glow that Bono conferred, it counted as a win-win for many of the major players. And debt relief often, of course, came with strings attached, as the small number of lucky recipient countries were monitored for necessary “reforms”, often involving opening up their public services to privatisation by foreign firms – the sorts of things that rendered them ever-friendlier for foreign capital. Why, really, would [Bono collaborator] Jesse Helms or Jeffrey Sachs be imagined to have any serious problem with any of that?
That is not to say that the Jubilee 2000 campaign was pointless or worthless […] However, the small good they achieved in gaining some debt cancellation – the US Congress in 2000 eventually forgave just half the US debt owed by the poorest African countries – and making the issue a public concern should be weighed against the publicity boost that was given to some of the most viciously destructive forces in the world. History tells us that, as they were being hugged by Bono for dropping a few pennies to the poor, his friends in the Washington-Wall Street axis were gorging themselves on the fruits of massive and newly unregulated financial speculation, all the while running up unpayable debts that would eventually dwarf those they were so magnanimously forgiving in Africa – these debts have been estimated as running into trillions of dollars, compared to the hundreds of millions under discussion to be “forgiven” in Africa.1
Another chapter of Bono’s continuing romance with the Dark Continent involved high-profile lobbying for free drug treatments for Africans afflicted with AIDS. This would find Bono working in partnership with that paragon of compassionate conservatism, President George W. Bush, and it is impossible, Browne writes, “to evaluate Bush’s Pepfar [i.e., President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] fully without noting that, in the next paragraph of the State of the Union speech in which the president announced his AIDS plan, he spoke of his intention to invade Iraq. The two issues were clearly conjoined by Bush, under the ever-flexible auspices of humanitarianism.” (The Bush administration’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, endorsed by Bono as well as Bob Geldof, made development aid for countries in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World contingent upon cooperation with America’s “War on Terror”2.)
If Bono chose to make conservative allies and arguments in working to treat AIDS, his organisation DATA was also conservative in other ways. Like the Global Fund to Treat AIDS, TB and Malaria […] DATA chose to work in cooperation with First World pharmaceutical companies, paying the full prices for their products, rather than directly challenging their medical patents, as Nelson Mandela, among others, had demanded and attempted. This meant that, for some years, those companies made substantial profits from the AIDS spending that poured into Africa.3
Bono’s quest to better the lives of those with AIDS would also attach him to the consumerist (RED) campaign:
(RED) is nothing more or less than a brand for sale, one that is licensed to a number of corporate “partners” – initial ones were American Express, Apple, Emporio Armani, Converse, Gap and Motorola, and many others have come and gone – so they can stick it on a product or product range, with the promise that a part of the profits will go directly to the Global Fund, for the purpose of buying HIV drugs for Africans. […]
Still, what (RED) raises from its corporate partners and from direct contributions to the fund through its website […] is small change in the context not only of the organization it is funding (the (RED) money has comprised less than 0.8 per cent of the Global Fund’s income since 2001), but also of the multi-billion-dollar sums being tossed around in Bono’s previous lobbying work in Washington and points beyond. […] Why has Bono expended so much time and effort, for so little return, in this particular piece of branding, and what does it signify?
To begin to understand it, perhaps it is worth noting where the idea allegedly originated. As Bono recalled in 2007, when it was still acceptable to refer in public to Bill Clinton’s now notorious deregulating treasury secretary, the guru of a Goldman Sachs generation, as “the great Robert Rubin”, he was the man. Rubin advised him in 2004 about his exertions for Africa, “You’ll never get this issue out there unless you market it like Nike.” […]
Still, once Bono and [partner Bobby] Shriver took Rubin’s advice, what did marketing “it” like Nike mean in practice? Basically, selling stuff coated with a thin layer of conscience, and perhaps a little [white] guilt-relief, and taking some of the proceeds for AIDS in Africa. […] For many people, the mere fact that someone can pay $200 for giant headphones – Beats, by Dr Dre – that not only shut out the noise of the world but also flaunt a tiny charitable donation (the promo-copy for the Beats explicitly names an amount: $5) is itself an obscenity, just another symptom of a brand-mad consumerist culture in a terribly sick world. But for many other people, pricy branded products are a pretty cool fact of life […]
Again, the small good achieved by (RED) comes at a high price, in principle as well as in practice. […] As legal scholar Sarah Dadush has spelled out in great detail […] words like “transparency” and “accountability” are thrown around in its promotional copy, but only in regard to the Global Fund, not to the operation of (RED) itself, which is a model of opacity. How much money from your purchase of a (RED) product goes to the Global Fund? They don’t have to tell you, though, as noted above with the Beats headphones, they sometimes do. How much money do the corporate partners pay (RED) to use the brand – money that, after all, they have to make somewhere, perhaps hidden in the price of the products? They don’t tell you. What are (RED)’s own salaries and overheads? Nope, sorry, that’s not public information. […]
Legally speaking, (RED) is neither a charity nor a registered charitable fundraiser, but is instead the property of a limited-liability company called The Persuaders, registered in Delaware. (The small US state is the legal home to half the Fortune 500 because of its business-friendly legal, taxation and regulatory environment.) […]
“But if (RED) is a small ‘win’ for the Global Fund,” Browne concludes, “it is hard to imagine it as anything other than a big one for its participating partners. It is an undisputed fact that far more money is spent by the partners in advertising their (RED)-branded products than ever reaches anyone in Africa […].”4
Ali Hewson, Bono’s wife, has also involved herself in her husband’s philanthro-capitalist crusade, founding the high fashion line Edun with him in 2005. The concept behind this brand is the promotion of fair trade commerce in Africa, with many of the company’s upmarket products being manufactured there. Here, too, just as with so much of Bono’s other activity, Edun’s social conscience appears to run parallel with the projects of America’s political, financial, and foreign policy elites, with Browne noting that “in Uganda, Edun has partnered its mission with that of the notorious American missionary charity, Invisible Children.” He continues:
Invisible Children exists, by its own account, to encourage US military intervention in eastern and central Africa to destroy the Lord’s Resistance Army, a paramilitary “child army” led by the hated Joseph Kony. […]
Was there really no one better to dig holes in Uganda than Invisible Children, a US-based NGO with right-wing and homophobic evangelical links and a cult-like social-media presence devoted to distorting the reality of African politics? […]
In the wake of Invisible Children’s viral Kony 2012 video, made by the idiosyncratic Invisible Children film-maker and spokesman Jason Russell – widely watched for its horrible depiction of the African warlord, but also widely discredited – Bono jumped happily to the organisation’s defence. His support was blogged on the website of his ONE campaign. “Having just been in Gulu with Edun … this is particularly pertinent for me [Kony had not in fact been in Gulu or anywhere else in Uganda for six years.] … Spreading like wildfire, and sparking a heated, fascinating, much needed debate, this is brilliant campaigning … Is there an Oscar for this kind of direction? Jason Russell deserves it.”
For Browne, “the conclusion could scarcely be clearer. Twenty-seven years after he first went to Africa with the evangelical World Vision […] Bono and his organisations were working on the ground and in the media to support an American right-wing, militarist agenda in Africa. It’s no wonder,” he finishes, twisting the knife, “that the company name is a misspelling of Eden.”5