Bono Hits All the Right Notes

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By Amey Stone

A crowd about 50 students was waiting eagerly near the entrance of New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts the evening of Oct. 5, when a shiny black SUV pulled up. Out stepped Bono, the lead singer of rock band U2 and arguably the world's most accomplished celebrity advocate for the poor, sick, and hungry.

Dubbed "the statesman" in a hagiographic New York Times Magazine cover story in September, Bono is rumored to be on the short-list to win this year's Nobel Peace Prize, which will be announced Oct. 7.

Wearing a tan cowboy hat and his customary black jeans and tinted sunglasses, the rock star was greeted with cheers. He graciously took a few minutes to joke with the crowd and sign autographs. Fans attempted to scale the building's walls to catch a glimpse of the short, smiling Irishman before security ushered him inside. College students eager to snare tickets asked every passerby if there was one to spare -- a hallmark of any U2 concert.

"WARM-UP ACT." Only this wasn't a rock concert. It was an economics lecture. And Bono wasn't even the main attraction. He was invited merely to introduce global poverty-fighter and Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, who was night's main attraction.

"We're back to being a warm-up act, Edge," Bono called out from the stage to U2's knit cap-wearing guitarist, The Edge, who was sitting sedately in the audience.

Bono, introduced by NYU President John Sexton as "Ireland's ambassador to the globe," clearly enjoyed playing second fiddle to Sachs for the evening. "I'm a groupie," he said, relating how he engaged Sachs to teach him "Rock star remedial economics."

ROCK-STAR RECEPTION. He even ribbed Sachs, joking that these days, when he tries to reach him by phone, he is told, "Sorry, he's with Angelina Jolie."

Bono's glowing speech gave the early part of the evening an atmosphere not unlike an awards ceremony. As if he was reciting a poem, Bono said of Sachs, author of the acclaimed book The End of Poverty, "He has a voice louder than an electric guitar.... He sees statistics not as numbers on a page, but as real people's lives.... He is not afraid of a big idea -- that we can do something about hunger and extreme poverty."

Finally, he presented Sachs as, "my friend, my teacher, my rock star."

When Sachs, with boyish smile and sedate gray suit, stepped up to the podium, he also was greeted by cheers. He had a major fan base there, but some of Bono's star status had rubbed off.

"CHILDREN DIE." Sachs took time out to rib Bono about his being in contention for the Nobel Prize. "We're rooting for you," he said. He joked that Bono could also win the Nobel Prize for Physics, since he had figured out how "left and right can come together." He expressed amazement that none other than Jesse Helms had said of Bono, "Take care of that boy, he's doing God's work."

Then the tone of the evening quickly became somber as Sachs led the audience on a harrowing tour through a handful of dying, impoverished villages in Malawi, western Kenya, and Ethopia. His first slide depicted a woman from Malawi, surrounded by about a dozen children, who she was charged to care for. But her crop had failed and her only food was a watery gruel made from boiled husks she collected at the mill. "What happens when people have no food at all?" he asked the crowd. "Children die."

He pointed to a small boy of about four leaning against the woman's hip. Sachs reported that on a return trip just a few weeks ago he learned the boy had recently died. He was just one of the 200 out of every 1,000 children in that region will die before the age of five -- 100 times the rate of the Western world, says Sachs.

SMALL STEPS, BIG GAINS. More such grim images, anecdotes and statistics followed, but by the end of his 45-minute talk, Sachs had become more inspiring and hopeful than sad. His message in a nutshell: Solving world poverty can be done -- in fact it would be neither all that hard nor expensive to accomplish. Moreover, such action is a moral imperative for citizens of the developed world.

Best of all, it will make you feel good. "Poor countries have given us the best bargain in the world," he said.

All it takes is items like a $7 bed net to ward off malaria-carrying mosquitoes, a $40 treadle pump to irrigate crops, a $30 bag of fertilizer to restore nitrogen to the soil, and $45,000 to hire a doctor for 15,000 villagers -- "nothing fancy," he said. "We really can do something very special," he said. "We have to do it."

AWE AND ACTION. He urged the audience to rise above defeatist bureaucracy. He scoffed at arguments that it was futile to hand out goods and supplies to African nations due to corruption and incompetence of governments or worries the people wouldn't value what they had been given for free. "They are not looking to shake us down," said Sachs. They just need a "helping hand to get on the first rung of the ladder of economic development."

By the end of the night it was less clear whether Bono should be the Nobel Prize recipient or Sachs. But it also seemed not to matter much. The crowd left awed, and seemed, based on the buzz in the room, to have been inspired to action.

A grass roots movement is building, fueled by university lectures like the one at NYU. Sachs is the movement's architect, but Bono is its momentum. Keep an eye on it. It seems destined to grow from here.

Copyright © 2005 BusinessWeek Online. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 8, 2005 4:34 PM.

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