Bono the Jerk

At the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference Bono displayed behaviors that could be considered not only rude but elitist and possibly even racist, depending on how you look at it.

But the second, more interesting theme–echoed by every speaker–is that traditional aid and charity, whether distributed by nation-states or nongovernmental bodies, have failed. Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist and social worker, now a fellow at Stanford, made the case most strongly. He argued convincingly that 30 years of Western aid to Africa has achieved nothing at all. More, he said that the persistence of African poverty could be explained, in part, by aid. He explained that aid had convinced the brightest Africans to work for corrupt governments rather than as entrepreneurs, and it had “distorted the incentive structure.”

“What man or nation,” Mwenda asked, “has ever become rich by holding out a begging bowl?”

Far better, he said, is finding Westerners to invest in African entrepreneurs or businesses, which would create wealth. Mwenda, like other speakers, described at length the investment opportunities in Africa. (I half expected the pitch to be directly addressed to Doerr et al.)

This line of argument enraged Bono, however, who began heckling Mwenda.

“Bollocks!” he shouted. “That’s bullshit.”

So what is Mwenda’s solution for the crushing poverty in Africa? Finding ways to get Africa to get itself out of the mess. Sure, it would require help, but not the charity that has been so common in the past, but instead investments in productive enterprises. Bono of course, thinks this is worng headed? Why? Could it be that Bono doesn’t think Africa and Africans can accomplish without help from the rich Western (and often white) nations?

To be fair to Bono he did speak next,

Bono is a strong supporter of intelligently managed aid. When it came his turn to speak, he said that Ireland’s current prosperity is explained by government investment in its people, particularly education. He said that listening to Mwenda was like listening to an African Margaret Thatcher.

The problem with this explanation is that it is also bullshit and bollocks, at least in that it doesn’t explain everything.

In 1987 the Irish Republic’s per capita income hovered at 63 percent of the United Kingdom’s. From 1990 to 1995 Ireland’s economy grew at more than 5 percent per year and from 1996 to 2000 it raced at more than 9 percent a year. Today, Ireland’s $25,500 per capita income bests the United Kingdom’s per capita average by $3,200.

The country’s astounding 10-year economic history has led some to dub Ireland the Celtic Tiger. Understanding the causes of Ireland’s success can help Ireland avoid policy mistakes during its current slower growth that would undermine its future potential.

After a stagnant 13-year period with less than 2 percent growth, Ireland took a more radical course of slashing expenditures, abolishing agencies and toppling tax rates and regulations. At the same time, the government made credible commitments not to engage in deficit spending or inflate the currency.

Ireland’s long history of free and open trade has also played a role in its recovery. However, only since freeing other aspects of its economy by lowering taxes, decreasing regulation, maintaining low inflation, and providing a stable fiscal environment has Ireland been able to grow rapidly enough to surpass greater Europe’s standard of living.


If the subsides were really the cause of economic development in Ireland, we would also expect other poor countries in the EU, which receive subsidies, to have high rates of economic growth. EU Structural and Cohesion Funds represented 4 percent of Greek, 2.3 percent of Spanish, and 3.8 percent of Portuguese GDP. None of these countries achieved anywhere near the rate of growth the Irish economy experienced. Spain averaged 2.5 percent GDP growth, while Portugal averaged 2.6 and Greece averaged only 2.2 percent growth from 1990-2000.

I know, I know, that is a Cato link, and they are nothing but a bunch of capitalist running pig-dogs. But how about Slate?

What brought about Ireland’s dramatic transmogrification? One study suggests that it was simply more people working more effectively. Starting in the early 1970s, an almost unprecedented extended period of strong productivity growth resulted in productivity levels (as measured in output per hour worked) above those of the United States, the global productivity gold standard.


Of course, if that were all there was to it, labor camps run by productivity experts would be popular models of development. Instead, the Irish recipe is a combination of Economics 101, luck, and an almost otherworldly persistence. Long before globalization became a geopolitical clich√©, Ireland subscribed to free trade in part as a way to increase domestic competitiveness. It also recognized how protectionist policies, like high tariffs, can distort the path of economic development and investment. It implemented policies focused on facilitating foreign investment and created incentives to aggressively attract it; now Ireland accounts for one-quarter of all U.S. foreign direct investment in Europe. Tax rates were cut, both for businesses and individuals, and the country’s fiscal and monetary house was brought into order. In the 1980s, a broad social partnership between industry and trade unions paved the way for positive and constructive relations and helped restrain wage growth. And, as in other European countries, Ireland’s education policy has been broadly successful in creating a large supply of young workers.

I doubt that Bono is really a racist, although he certainly is a jerk. But his attitudes are indeed paternalistic and certainly questionable. And the final closing comment on the Technology conference was amusing,

Oh, and everything you’ve heard about Bono’s height is entirely true: he really is remarkably short.


FILED UNDER: Africa, Entertainment, Popular Culture, World Politics, , , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Anjin-san says:


    If you want to take issue with Bono’s remarks fine, have at it. Taking a shot at him based on his height kind of makes you well, a jerk…

    If you want to criticise people for being jerks, you should not act like one in your own post.

  2. Boyd says:

    Yeah, Steve, you should never ever never poke fun at a celebrity, because it will hurt their feelings.

    And you especially should never do it by quoting an article that you’re already quoting from. Because that will hurt the pilot’s feelings.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    Actually Anjin-San, I thought the remark about Bono’s height, or more specifically the lack thereof, was appropriate given that Bono’s own comments reduced him in stature, if only metaphorically.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Why do organizations continue to put celebs on these panels? I know it gets them publicity but it would seem to run off the more serious thinkers and reduce the “stature” of the event.

  5. Steve Verdon says:


    You vicious cold hearted man, you!

  6. Bandit says:

    Sorry but I missed the implied racist part