Today on the 23rd annual World AIDS Day, I’d like to write about Bono. Not Bono the musician, or Bono the businessman, but Bono the humanitarian, his most controversial hat. Since he began his career as an activist for various causes pertinent to Africa in the mid-1980′s, he has been both widely hailed and widely criticized; and I will argue that both are viable and warranted.
Let’s start with the good part: the fact that Bono’s lobbying campaigns, concerts, publicized visits to countries all over Africa, and other relevant endeavors have done some good, emphasis on ‘some.’ Like him or not, you can’t argue that his work over the past 25 or so years has brought a lot of necessary attention to very big problems facing Africa. One can argue the implications of the attention, but we’ll save that for the next paragraph. He’s helped set up and participated in various projects to fight AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis, and poverty, most notably the Live Aid concert series, the Global Fund, and Project(RED). Again, the merits of all of these organizations is contestable, but I’ll get to that. Finally he’s given millions of his own money to fight disease and poverty across Africa all in the process of making it a continent the general populace of the world can no longer ignore. That last bit is definitely worth at least a few brownie points.
Now on to the cons of Bono’s humanitarian efforts in Africa. First of all, the attention he has brought to the continent has been, for the most part, focused exclusively on the diseased, impoverished, and even corrupt parts of the continent. This negative image is something the continent can’t seem to shake, and it’s hurting as a result. Frankly speaking, you don’t need data, research, or personal experience on the continent to form an idea of Africa as a desolate place full of disease, poverty, and corruption. All you need is a TV set. Now I know a lot of this is the result of negative media attention as well, but like I said earlier, Bono’s trip are highly publicized and he hardly showcases Africa as the beautiful, diverse, and progressive place it is striving to be. Second, regarding his various campaigns in which he’s been formally involved, all it takes is a Google search to see that the ONE Campaign and the Global Fund in particular have come under scrutiny for missing donations and corruption allegations, and acting solely as a vehicle for celebrities to revamp their image, especially after a scandal. (See Brad Pitt’s involvement with the ONE Campaign not long after his image was dealt a harsh blow due to his divorce from Jennifer Aniston.) Finally, and this critique best takes the form of a question, how much does he actually know about Africa, as reflected in his work? How often does he actually say the name of a country or a leader or a city or an ethnic group or anything more geographically, politically, socially, or culturally specific than ‘Africa’? This has major implications for people who follow his work closely, especially those who understand his stories as reliable information on Africa. That definitely doesn’t do the continent any good given that a critical first step in promoting progress is having a thorough understanding of Africa.
Given his participation in a panel discussion with President Obama, and former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton today on World AIDS Day, this thorough examination of humanitarian Bono is especially relevant. The Irish rockstar isn’t the first, however, and he definitely won’t be the last of an ever-expanding club of celebrities turned humanitarians; and I would argue that regardless of one’s personal feelings on the celebrity in question, their charitable works should always be taken with a grain of salt. After all, they’re celebrities first, and humanitarians second. Celebrity is a tool to further their humanitarian agenda, which is undoubtedly a product of their position in the world.
Ironically, I think Bono articulated my feelings, that celebrities can be used to draw attention to critical issues, but should not be understood as experts by any means on the matter, on the issue best:
“It is absurd if not obscene that celebrity is a door that such serious issues need to pass through before politicians take note. But there it is. Jubilee can’t get into some of the offices and I can. But the idea has a kind of force of its own. I’m just making it louder. And, you know, making noise is a job description really for a rock star.”