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Traveling in Harmony

Posted on Friday, May 17 @ 05:20:46 UTC by Macphisto
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(Washington Post) -- O'Neill, Bono Downplay Differences Before Trip

In the annals of overseas travel by high-ranking U.S. officials, next week's trip by Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill would be hard to top for sheer incongruity.

It might be called "Mr. Hardhead and Mr. Bleeding-Heart Go to Africa." The tart-tongued O'Neill, who argues that aid to poor countries has often gone to waste, plans to visit four African nations from May 20 to 31 with Paul Hewson, the Irish rock star better known as Bono, who has become a leading advocate for helping the world's impoverished.

Their odd-couple shtick promises to make Felix Unger and Oscar Madison seem like kindred spirits. O'Neill, 66 and silver-maned, comports himself like the corporate chief executive that he used to be. Bono, the 42-year-old lead singer of U2 -- a group with 14 Grammy awards for songs such as "Walk On" and albums such as "Achtung Baby" -- is usually decked out in scruffy black clothing and wraparound blue shades.

Unsurprisingly, this jaunt -- to Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia -- is attracting interest from a much wider spectrum of media than the financial wire services that usually chronicle a Treasury secretary's travels. Among the organizations signed up to cover the trip are Rolling Stone and MTV.

That, of course, is one of the main points of it all: The publicity benefits O'Neill -- and the Bush administration -- by projecting him as a Republican who, despite his criticism of aid's past record, cares about global poverty and maintains an open mind about how to tackle it.

For Bono, who has been deeply involved for the past three years in the movement to cancel the debts of low-income countries, the trip provides an opportunity to exploit his celebrity by focusing attention on some of the world's most appallingly poor places and the urgent need of their inhabitants for health care, schools and clean water.

"My job is to be used. I am here to be used," Bono said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It's just, at what price? As I keep saying, I'm not a cheap date." If the trip helps advance progress on forgiving debts, beefing up a global fund for fighting AIDS and lowering trade barriers to African products in rich-country markets, "then I'm very, very happy to be used," he said.

O'Neill acknowledged yesterday that linking up with a man who has been a rock legend for two decades offers a powerful way to inform people -- especially the young -- about both the benefits and obstacles of economic development. Praising Bono as "a substantive person who wants to make a difference," the Treasury secretary said: "I know that our traveling together has raised some eyebrows. I hope it also raises interest in getting serious about achieving real improvements in the lives of the people of Africa. For too long, we've seen too little progress."

O'Neill, who grew up favoring the music of Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, said in an interview that although he didn't have to be told who U2 was, "I guess I wouldn't say I'm their No. 1 fan." His grandchildren, ages 5 to 22, "think it's pretty cool" that he and Bono are traveling together, he said. Another family member well versed in U2's music is his youngest daughter, age 39, who is coming along on the trip to work on her dissertation concerning the effect of literature on different cultures.

"This whole age group -- I would say, from 40 to about 5 -- knows about U2," O'Neill observed. "It is interesting."

The idea for the trip was hatched when Bono came to the Treasury about a year ago -- a meeting that O'Neill staved off for weeks on the assumption that the rock singer "just wants to use me," he recalled telling his staff.

But Bono, whose charisma has bowled over a number of conservative Republicans, including Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), impressed the Treasury chief with his grasp of policy details and his firsthand knowledge of Africa. (Bono first became passionate about the continent's woes in 1984 when he and his wife spent six weeks working in an Ethiopian refugee camp.) So O'Neill suggested that Bono might accompany him to Africa on a trip then planned for October 2001, an invitation Bono seized with alacrity. The voyage was postponed after Sept. 11, but Bono persisted and made sure he was available to accompany the secretary when the trip was rescheduled.

The concept of their traveling jointly has long intrigued economic development experts because O'Neill is renowned for heaping scorn on efforts made by aid agencies such as the World Bank to raise living standards in developing countries. Among his most oft-repeated assertions is that "we have precious little to show" for the tens of billions of dollars that have been poured into aid programs over the past half century.

On the eve of their trip, though, both O'Neill and Bono were at pains to play down their differences. O'Neill cited Bono's support for President Bush's recently announced plan to increase U.S. foreign aid by $10 billion over three years, with the funds earmarked for countries that show significant progress toward reducing corruption, improving their investment climate and devoting resources to education and health.

"I have been outspoken about the results that have not been produced by what we've been doing," O'Neill said. "I'm not skeptical about whether we should do it, or even that we should do a lot more of it, but I'm determined that we should get value for resources. And I think the lives of people can be improved in a marked way by following the ideas that the president has been talking about, by insisting on the conditions we know are necessary and then producing real results."

After he and Bono have had a chance to inspect projects promoting goals such as health, education and private enterprise, "I suspect we'll find we don't have that much of a difference of opinion of what to do and how to do it, if I read him right," O'Neill added. "I think he's more than just a compassionate person. He likes to see real results."

Bono said he was ready to show O'Neill the kind of aid that can work, having traveled to Africa in January on a preparatory trip with Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs to make sure he could find solid illustrations of the points he wants to make -- such as water projects and schools in Uganda paid for with funds freed-up by debt relief.

"I don't characterize him as an uncaring and uncooperative character," Bono said of O'Neill. But the Treasury secretary, he allowed, "is a tough guy, and he is going to be tough to be turn around on some matters."

By Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writer

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