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"World debt angers me"



As a pop star I have two instincts. I want to have fun. And I want to change the world. I am not alone. On New Years Eve '99 there's a chance to do both. The expectation towards what is a fairly spurious date (depending on your calendar) is still an energy to be harnessed.


The Millennium Dome isn't big enough to fill this anticipation. The punters want . . . er, content. It's a new world order all right, and a media-savvy populace can see through the fact that a lot of people living on this planet are hungry and angry. There's a cyber circus planned, but no bread. It gets harder to enjoy the house party, when the faces of hunger and exploitation are so regularly pressed up against the glass of our TV sets, looking in at us, looking away. Good.


In the '80s Bob Geldof reacted on a visceral level to these same images, and brought a spoiled generation, of which I'm proud to be a part, on a ride to no mean achievement. Live Aid raised $200 million for Africa.


Anger is the only response on realising that that sum is spent every week by the poorest countries of Africa - on debt service. Africa owes $227 billion to western creditors - $379 for every man, woman and child in Africa. She can do with spending that just on her children. Debris being cleared across the Honduras and Nicaragua was even more crushing when its citizens realised they were also carrying $1.5 million a day in debt service. Consider: for every $1 the West gives in aid to developing countries, $9 comes back in debt service. As Larry Elliott said in this paper last week, these days we don't have debtors prisons for people. We have them for countries instead.


Long after our governments and banks have solicited and financed dodgy dictators, and they have gone belly up, their successors have to carry the can.


So, Live Aid, Comic Relief are only a beginning. People don't want crumbs from the table. They don't want charity. They want to be at the table.


Both sides are to blame. There's been a mix of bad lending, bad borrowing, bad economics and bad luck. Jubilee 2000 says, write off those unpayable debts in the year 2000, under an open, fair and transparent process. Put in place a new discipline for lending and borrowing to stop the debts building up again. I'm with Jubilee 2000.


The millennium is a key moment in time. We have to grasp that moment. It is not a time for factions, for narrow sects or ideological crusades. Jubilee 2000 is none of those things. Jubilee 2000 is bipartisan. It is broad, inclusive and international. It is emerging as a fresh convergence of differing groups. Including conservative elements, recognising the rule of money-lenders has gone too far.


The conservative Wall Street Journal last month described the debt servicing costs of some third world countries as 'obscene', and called for a bankruptcy procedure to deal with them. Jeffrey Sachs, formerly the architect of 'shock therapy' ultra-monetarist reforms in post-Soviet Russia, argued that the first fundamental need for the poorest countries is that their debts should be 'cancelled outright'. And the Adam Smith Institute last week claimed that by cancelling unpayable debt, 'we not only raise the living standards of the desperately poor but we give them a chance and the investment to embark on that upward path which generates growth, wealth and jobs. Cancellation is in our interests as well as theirs'.


The eve of '99 will provide a unique set of circumstances. And we have a unique set of players, who I believe are ready to face the implications of their own script. Tony Blair is one such performer. So is Gordon Brown. Grand gesture is the performer's twitch. A sense of occasion is everything. Gerhard Schroder is another player. He remembers Germany's hardship after the war, and how the cancelling of debt combined with the Marshall Plan, saved the next generation of Germans from repeating the horrors of the 20's and 30's. As the next millennium begins I believe he will be ready to play his role. So will Bill Clinton.


Actually, I may be naive, but I believe they have the will. But they will only find the way if there is an extraordinary public outcry. The millennium is a key moment in time. We have to grasp that moment. Nineties people may feel at times disaffected or disenfranchised politically, but they're not without conscience.


I'm in the music business, the volume business. Making a lot of noise is something musicians do well. Florescence you could call it. We see a chance here, for an idea that will give not just the millennium some meaning, but also our generation.


I've had calls from people such as the singer Lauryn Hill (on the way to having her baby) Pavarotti, Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, REM, Beastie Boys, Michael Jackson and the blessed Bob Geldof himself. Add these names to those of the TUC, the BMA, Christian Aid and others and you begin to have the kind of broad convergence that ended slavery and, eventually, apartheid. But it does not hold indefinitely. It exists only for the moment. We must not let it pass us by.



Bono is the lead singer of U2.  This article originally appeared in The Guardian,16 February 1999.