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Bono is no champion of change, says development expert

Flickr, Globetoppers

Not compared to John Lennon anyway.

“Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not,” says NYU Professor Bill Easterly, a popular and often controversial voice on the development and foreign aid scene.

In an article for Sunday’s Washington Post, Easterly marked the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death by challenging the commonly held view that U2’s lead singer Bono (aka Paul David Hewson) is a crusader for the poor who challenges the powerful and holds politicians to account.

Lennon did, the NYU economist says, but not Bono:

Lennon’s protests against the war in Vietnam so threatened the U.S. government that he was hounded by the FBI, police and immigration authorities. He was a moral crusader who challenged leaders whom he thought were doing wrong. Bono, by contrast, has become a sort of celebrity policy expert, supporting specific technical solutions to global poverty.

He does not challenge power but rather embraces it; he is more likely to appear in photo ops with international political leaders – or to travel through Africa with a Treasury secretary – than he is to call them out in a meaningful way.

Bill Easterly

While there is something to be admired in the celebrity dissident, Easterly says Bono is simply ridiculous as a “celebrity wonk.” Easterly goes on to say:

While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed.

While Bono champions “technical” solutions to ending poverty, Easterly said, Lennon directly challenged the powerful — and paid dearly for it.

Well, it’s a bit harsh. And kind of curious since Easterly is himself sort of a wonk. But as an academic who likes a rousing good debate, he notes on his blog AidWatch that, by far, most of those responding to his article completely disagree with him. Here’s one such commenter, Crawford:

I couldn’t disagree more with your article about Lennon vs Bono. Most people are sick of celebrities making generalizations about causes and not knowing a whole lot about what they are talking about. Any twat can take a “stand” on something and becauce they are famous get attention for it. Bono actually knows his stuff and to say that he just smoozes with the big wigs and follows the status quo shows you know little about Bono. He understands to get things done you have to meet with people you disagree with. Bono has been more effective at getting money, getting policy changed, etc etc. than any other activist in the history of celebrity activists.

It’s well worth reading Easterly’s article, and the response he got. His critical comparison of Lennon vs. Bono appears to have prompted the Guardian to ask its readers to chime in by answering the question: Do celebrities have a role to play in development?

The answer is yes, of course, since we see them everywhere playing those roles — Angelina Jolie in Haiti, Clooney in Sudan and so on. The real question is if the celebrity is using his or her status to help in a crisis or if appearing in a crisis is aimed at helping the celebrity’s status.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.