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Bono Got It Wrong

March 18th, 2009 | 3 min read

By Tex

Sometimes conservatives are right to feel about silly or ashamed of their values and beliefs: the old Bill Gothard-esque penchant for oversized down jackets and dressing children in matching outfits or the thankfully short-lived movement to ban interracial dating at Bob Jones University.  But these days, it’s the orange sunglasses and the cowboy hat  of U2’s Irish cowboy that have got to go.

Celebrity aid to Africa was amped up to new levels in 2006 when Bono went on tour with a promise to “make poverty history,” while promoting his ONE Campaign to fight social injustices.  Following in his footsteps, Madonna and Angelina Jolie decided to save Africa by adopting its children and exporting them to the notoriously safe haven of family values…Hollywood.

Dying orphans, the shattered dreams of children-turned-soldiers, and the heartbreaking cries of a young African widow don’t just play well in the Academy; they also turn in breathtaking ratings for major media outlets, celebrities, and not-for-profit organizations that still manage to keep their staffs paid and happy.  Cynicism is not my favorite attitude, but I’m beginning to wonder if the reason the poor will always be with us has to do with the fact that human hubris hinders truly sacrificial love.  That and the poor turn remarkably lucrative profits for charity concerts, campaign advertisers, and international development and “non-profit” organizations.

Cynicism aside, there are other plausible explanations for the Western infatuation with the poverty-stricken continent.  It could be that the collective soul of America and the wealthy West are the underlying cause of the continuation of poverty and pain in the developing world.  It could be that our communal desire for catharsis and absolution is standing in the way of development and progress.  It could be that we need a little less sentimentality and a lot more business sense.

Compare our response to Africa with the notoriously unsentimental, no-nonsense, Chinese government.  While we play the altar call music one more time and pass the plate, Chinese investors have begun treating Africans like business partners and are turning profits that benefit both parties.

Consider this remarkable report from free-lance blogger Jennifer Brea:

While Americans are pestering their leaders to Save Darfur–an unlikely prospect absent full-scale military intervention–the Chinese are busy building roads and hydroelectric power dams. China believes Africa is a huge economic opportunity and deals with Africa like a business partner. The Chinese see Africans the way many would like to see themselves.”

In a previous article she cites some amazing stats: total trade between China and Africa nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2006; Chinese trade and investment are a driving factor in Sub-Saharan Africa’s record 5.8% growth rate; China accounted for $900 million of $15 billion in foreign direct investment to Africa in 2004.

Leaving aside the eyebrows this should raise for American citizens concerned with national defense, we should pause and note that free trade on the capitalist model, which takes into account human personality, creativity, dignity, and accountability, is able to do more than doling out handouts to an enforced beggar-class will ever accomplish.

Take a look at the results and ask yourself which is going to provide lasting change in the lives of the bottom billion…emotional catharsis rocking to U2 angst and buying a MakePovertyHistory bracelet, or very unglamorously studying viable business alternatives and then opening up a market with African trading partners.  I think the answer will be determined by the results you’re looking for.

Hat tip to Jordan Ballor for highlighting Time’s 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.