A Humanitarian Leader on the World Stage
by Jim Citrin
People all over the world recognize Bono. The Irish musician turned diplomat and philanthropist has transcended his rock-music roots to become a driving force in global economic policymaking, and a world leader in the war against AIDS in Africa.
How did he transform himself from musician to humanitarian leader? And what relevance does his experience have for you?
A Musician’s Calling
Bono is a powerful role model due, in large part, of course, to the impact he makes through his dedicated efforts around the world. But Bono’s influence extends beyond the causes he embraces and the work he does.
While many people would like to help solve the world’s most important and intractable problems, such as curing a raging epidemic or eliminating poverty, it’s not immediately obvious how exactly to do that. So what’s the relevant lesson from Bono’s example? Simply put, he sets an example for making the utmost of the hand he’s been dealt.
We all wonder how, given the context of our work and lives, we can most creatively, energetically, and effectively apply our natural talents to make a positive impact on others. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who so thoroughly addresses this question and utilizes his skills and station in life as Bono (or, to use his given name, Paul Hewson) does. “All of us want our lives to count,” he told me in a private conversation recently. “Music for me was always about changing the world.”
Taking a Different Path
From the start, Bono’s band, U2, has been committed to addressing important issues facing the world. Starting in the early 1980s, the group’s tours had cause-related sponsors — Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and Nelson Mandela to name a few.
In 1985, U2 played in the Live Aid concert to raise money for famine-stricken Ethiopia. While that wasn’t unique — just about every other major band played the concert — Bono actually wanted to understand the real problem around which they were rallying. So later that year, he and his wife, Ali, traveled to the African country and spent several months living and working in a refugee camp.
This is where Bono’s path diverged from that of other well-intentioned celebrities across the entertainment landscape. While they made cameo appearances and public-service announcements, Bono immersed himself in the economics and policymaking apparatus of debt relief.
Bono’s never been shy about leveraging his fame for access to the world’s most influential people, including James Wolfensohn, a former head of the World Bank; Paul Volcker, onetime leader of the Federal Reserve; and Jeffrey D. Sachs, an economics professor and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. What impresses these leaders most is how deeply Bono understands capital markets, debt instruments, and who the key decision-makers are.
A Red-Hot Initiative
The latest product of Bono’s creative energies is Product (RED), an innovative approach to fighting AIDS in Africa developed with activist Bobby Shriver in 2006.
Designed to find a new approach outside of traditional philanthropic channels to engage the private sector and consumers and raise cause-related funds, the project has resulted in a proliferation of products sharing a deep crimson hue. These include the Red Apple iPod, Red Motorola Razr, Red Gap Jeans, and American Express Red Card.
Just as he did with debt relief, Bono schooled himself on the science and pharmacology of HIV and the AIDS epidemic for Product (RED). Medical and health-care experts comment that he knows as much on the subject as any scientific journal editor, and when Bono talks about Product (RED) his insights about marketing budgets, consumer demand, and the business model are as sound as any chief executive or venture capitalist.
Bridging a Divide
When asked how such a project could possibly work, Bono explains that it’s a function of where the science has progressed regarding AIDS treatment and the power of the marketplace to channel resources. “AIDS is no longer a death sentence,” he says. “Just two pills a day will bring someone who is at death’s door back to a full life. These pills, which are available at the corner drugstore, cost less than a dollar a day.”
But since the poorest people in Africa earn less than a dollar a day, they can’t afford to buy the medicine and they die, at the alarming rate of 6,500 people a day. “It’s unnecessary,” Bono says. “It’s insane.”
A key part of the motivation for picking the issue of AIDS in Africa is that it’s an entirely winnable “war” — the medicine is inexpensive and readily available. But while people want to help, they aren’t necessarily prepared to go out of their way or spend extra money to do so.
On the flip side, companies would like to wrap their brands into the conscientious consumerism that’s driving billions of dollars of purchasing power, but competition and shareholder activism are so acute that they can’t afford meaningful corporate contributions to even the most important causes.
Bono’s leadership genius is in devising a way for consumers to go about their normal lives and make purchasing choices that meet their needs while appealing to their desire to help, and for companies to win more business thereby funding the dollars they direct to pay for inexpensive medicine to solve Africa’s AIDS crisis.
Both times I met with Bono, I mused that if he weren’t a rock star and diplomatic world-changer, he could easily be a great corporate chief executive officer.
He leads by example. No one works harder or delves as deeply into issues and data as he does. He surrounds himself with the best people, is an extraordinary listener, and takes advice extremely well. He understands economics, markets, consumers, media, and regulation. And he has a dynamism that attracts and inspires just about everyone he meets.
Some may question the efficacy of Product (RED). Can a for-profit enterprise really do good? How much money will ultimately be generated to pay for medicine for the people in need?
Others may question Bono’s motives. After all, he’s already been a Time magazine Person of the Year — maybe he’s simply interested in winning a Nobel Peace Prize. While that may be, it’s indisputable that his passion for curing AIDS in Africa is genuine. One only has to spend time with him to appreciate how devoted he is to this cause.
The key lesson to take away from Bono’s example is this: If an individual with a sharp mind, a dynamic personality, amazing musical skills, and a desire to make the world a better place can have such a far-reaching positive impact, it makes you wonder what else you can do.