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In Uganda, O'Neill and Bono Disagree About Success of Aid

Posted on Tuesday, May 28 @ 12:58:51 UTC by Macphisto
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(Washington Post) -- WAKISO, Uganda, May 27 -- The longer he tours Africa, the more convinced Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill is becoming that massive amounts of aid dollars have gone to waste -- and today, after visiting a poorly equipped primary school and village well, he issued one of his most impassioned blasts ever at aid agencies.

But his traveling companion, the rock star Bono, drew the opposite conclusion from the same school and well. And for the first time in their 10-day trip around Africa, Bono openly questioned the Treasury secretary's grasp of the aid issue.

Uganda is the third of four countries that the oddly matched pair are visiting on their tour, which is aimed at drawing attention to Africa's problems and illuminating the debate over how to overcome global poverty. Today the media-circus atmosphere surrounding the trip intensified as Bono, lead singer for the Irish rock group U2, was joined by movie actor Chris Tucker, along with a crew from MTV. But the day also produced some of the sharpest exchanges so far between O'Neill and Bono.

O'Neill, whose immaculately pressed shirts contrast starkly with Bono's safari garb, has shown deep anguish over the impoverished conditions he has encountered, even while maintaining his long-standing skepticism about the effectiveness of sending large sums to poor countries. A topic that he is becoming particularly exercised about is the apparent inability of aid agencies to help African governments provide their towns and villages with clean water -- a crucial problem because bacteria in water sickens and kills millions of poor people a year, especially young children, who can die from debilitating diarrhea.

During a visit to a well in Wakiso, an area outside of Uganda's capital, Kampala, the Treasury secretary emphasized how cheaply the well had been built, noting that it cost $1,000 and provided clean water to more than 400 people. Using "back-of-the-envelope arithmetic," he said, he and Uganda's central bank governor had calculated the night before that wells serving all of the nation's people could be drilled for about $25 million. He questioned why it couldn't be done within a year.

"Last year the World Bank lent $300 million to Uganda," he said later in the day to a university audience. "What was so important that there wasn't $25 million to $30 million to give everyone in Uganda clean water? Where did the money go?"

During another stop, at a Wakiso primary school, O'Neill voiced exasperation upon being told that during the dry season, the school's students had to carry water four miles, and he was equally outraged to learn that textbooks were so scarce that they had to be shared by an average of six students each.

If people in rich countries "understood that they could give six copies of Dr. Seuss, and then every child would have it, I think we could get people to, in effect, adopt children, and say, 'We're going to make sure that every child has their own book,' " he said to Bono as TV cameras rolled. "I think we need to make this into an individual-people thing, and not some cosmic stuff about billions of dollars" in aid. "This is about real people."

That statement appalled Bono, who had expected to use the well and the school to make the case that poor countries can reap enormous benefits from aid and debt relief if their governments are reform-minded and put the money into sectors such as health and education. The rock star likes to cite figures showing that Uganda, whose government is one of the World Bank's star pupils, has used some of its debt-relief savings to lower school fees, build schools and double enrollments over the past several years.

"It is going to take billions of dollars," retorted Bono, whose real name is Paul Hewson. "We -- not you personally, but the United States and Europe -- can transform the lives of these children by actually getting money to them."

A few minutes later, with O'Neill occupied elsewhere, Bono fumed that many more schools like the one he was visiting had been built because of "organized,government-to-government canceling of debts . . . in an example of why we need big money for development. And it is absolutely not an example of why we don't. And if the secretary can't see that, we're going to have to get him a pair of glasses and a new set of ears."

Another, more diplomatic demurral to O'Neill's criticism of aid came from Bob Blake, the World Bank's country program manager for Uganda, who responded in a telephone interview to the Treasury secretary's points about the World Bank's failings in the water sector.

The World Bank has long ago learned that simply drilling wells in desperately poor villages such as Wakiso doesn't work, because the wells and pumps often fall into disrepair, Blake said.

"It's more than just having the physical infrastructure; you also need to have systems in place to make sure it's maintained," he said. "That's complicated. I don't want to say it's rocket science, but it requires changes in communities and structures and institutions and so forth."

That typically means establishing committees of local people who are responsible for well maintenance, and supervisory personnel who can inspect wells periodically and monitor the committee's performance.

The World Bank hasn't lent money directly for water projects in Uganda for two years, Blake added, but it is working on the problem through a $150 million "poverty-reduction support credit," which focuses on helping the government improve services.

By Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writer

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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