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Odd Couple: Paul O’Neill and Bono

June 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Paul O’Neill went to the podium at Georgetown University this morning, fresh from the most publicized trip of his 18-month tenure as treasury secretary.

PAUL O’NEILL, Secretary of the Treasury: I went to Africa last month to listen and to learn, to meet African leaders in and out of government; to meet doctors and farmers and teachers, students, entrepreneurs. I went to hear their insights into the obstacles to Africa’s prosperity. Some would say my trip was a little out of the ordinary, the Treasury Secretary traveling with a rock star, what the media styled as the “Odd Couple.”

KWAME HOLMAN: The “Odd Couple” paired the straight-laced businessman-turned-Washington numbers-cruncher with the renowned rock star of the trademark wraparound shades and thick Irish accent, Bono. O’Neill and Bono, front man for the band U2, spent 11 days touring Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, and Ethiopia. The trip was Bono’s idea, an effort to bring attention to the crippling problems of Africa’s poorest nations: Heavy debt, the need for foreign aid, and the scourge of AIDS.

Bono said O’Neill, who argues money is not the sole answer to the continent’s problems, was not an easy sell, but eventually agreed to the trip. In South Africa, the two met HIV-positive mothers and their children. Bono remarked on the poverty.

BONO, Lead Singer, U2: I’m dumbfounded, one, by the courage of these women who’ve come out in their communities, one, wearing a HIV-positive tee-shirt. And she knows that her baby has been saved by Nevirapine, by the drugs, but she can’t afford the dollar and a half a day to save her own life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary O’Neill saw the need for better infrastructure and changes in government policies.

PAUL O’NEILL: I don’t have any trouble with more money, but I think we must insist of ourselves that every person is going to have clean water in the world and that people who are treated positive for HIV are going to be given treatment before we spend money.

KWAME HOLMAN: Everywhere along the way, a willing international press was there. In Soweto, the rock star sang with children.

SINGING: I have run, I have cried…

KWAME HOLMAN: And there were meetings with heads of state in South Africa and in Ghana, as well, where the two also toured businesses, including a data processing center.

BONO: They don’t have MTV, that’s all I’ll say, but it’s a pretty great facility, and I really think Ghana has an incredible future.

KWAME HOLMAN: That future, however, is a murky one. Half of Africa’s 340 million people live on less than a dollar a day. Experts say most African economies would have to grow 7 percent a year to cut poverty in half by the year 2015. Last year, overall economic growth on the continent was only in the 3 percent range.

Washington gives African nations about a billion dollars a year in aid– about one tenth of the world total. But critics say the U.S. contribution is far too small. In March, President Bush announced a $5 billion increase in U.S. foreign aid that will include some African nations. It is Secretary O’Neill’s job to assess how best the new money can be used. O’Neill says in the past, vast amounts of aid money have been wasted.

PAUL O’NEILL: I’m sick of social policy and the idea that compassion is demonstrated by amounts of money. We’ve spent trillions of dollars on these problems and we have damn near nothing to show for it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bono repeatedly asked that more American money be earmarked to help particular African nations, like Ghana.

BONO: When malaria is the biggest killer in this country, when children are dying of diarrhea and because the water supply, how more effective aid can there be than just investing in water or roads? I mean, that’s… I don’t think there is an argument there.

KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the trip, Bono stressed the urgency of the situation and asked O’Neill to press President Bush on the Africa aid issue.

BONO: I think the Secretary will be able to send one message back to the President: This is an emergency, isn’t it? This is an emergency.

KWAME HOLMAN: At Georgetown University this morning, O’Neill called his trip a profound experience.

PAUL O’NEILL: I can’t begin to describe all of the emotional moments during this trip. But they confirmed three things for me. First, a truth we’ve always known: All people everywhere can do great things when they are given the tools and incentives for success. Second, that with leadership, honest, accountable, and committed to progress, everything is possible. Without leadership, nothing is possible. And finally, that in the right environment focused on growth, enterprise, and human development, aid works. Knowing that it can work, we have a moral imperative to demand as much. Assistance should make a real difference in people’s lives.

KWAME HOLMAN: O’Neill said it was too soon to offer specific new policy recommendations.