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Africa — Because We Can, We Must

What would it cost to ensure true equality for all human beings?

July 7, 2004

What would it cost to ensure true equality for all human beings?

In his 2004 address to the graduates of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, U2's lead singer, Bono, spoke on a number of issues. His remarks touched on everything from the delinquent behavior of rock stars to using fame as a catalyst for change. In this excerpt from his speech, Bono outlines the pressing need to ensure equality for all human beings — especially in Africa.

Every age has its massive moral blind spots. We might not see them, but our children will.

Slavery was one of them and the people who best served that age were the ones who called it as it was — which was ungodly and inhuman.

Segregation. There was another one. America sees this now, but it took a civil rights movement to betray their age.

And 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court betrayed the age. May 17, 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education came down and put the lie to the idea that separate can ever really be equal. Amen to that.

Fast-forward 50 years. May 17, 2004. What are the ideas right now worth betraying? What are the lies we tell ourselves now?

What are the blind spots of our age? What’s worth spending your lives trying to do or undo? It might be something simple.

It might be something as simple as our deep down refusal to believe that every human life has equal worth. Could that be it? Could that be it?

Each of you will probably have your own answer, but for me that is it. And for me the proving ground has been Africa.

Africa makes a mockery of what we say, at least what I say, about equality and questions our pieties and our commitments. There’s no way to look at what’s happening over there and its effect on all of us and conclude that we actually consider Africans as our equals before God. There is no chance.

An amazing event happened here in Philadelphia in 1985 — Live Aid. That whole "We Are The World" phenomenon, the concert that happened here.

Well, after that concert I went to Ethiopia with my wife, Ali. We were there for a month and an extraordinary thing happened to me.

We used to wake up in the morning and as the mist would be lifting we’d see thousands and thousands of people who’d been walking all night to our food station where we were working.

One man — I was standing outside talking to the translator — had this beautiful boy and he was speaking to me in Amharic, I think it was. I said I can’t understand what he’s saying, and this nurse who spoke English and Amharic said to me: he’s asking you to take his son.

He’s saying please take his son, he would be a great son for you.

I was looking puzzled and he said, “You must take my son, because if you don’t take my son, my son will surely die."

“If you take him he will go back to Ireland and get an education.” Probably like the ones we’re talking about today.

I had to say no, those were the rules there and I walked away from that man. I’ve never really walked away from it.

But I think about that boy and that man and that’s when I started this journey that’s brought me here into this stadium.

Because at that moment I became the worst scourge on God’s green earth, a rock star with a cause. Christ!

Except it isn’t a cause. Seven thousand Africans dying every day of preventable, treatable diseases like AIDS? That’s not a cause, that’s an emergency.

And when the disease gets out of control, because most of the population live on less than one dollar a day? That’s not a cause, that’s an emergency.

And when resentment builds because of unfair trade rules and the burden of unfair debt, that are debts, by the way, that keep Africans poor? That’s not a cause, that’s an emergency.

So — We Are The World, Live Aid, start me off it was an extraordinary thing, and really that event was about charity.

But 20 years on I’m not that interested in charity. I’m interested in justice. There’s a difference. Africa needs justice as much as it needs charity.

Equality for Africa is a big idea. It’s a big expensive idea. I see the Wharton graduates now getting out the math on the back of their programs, numbers are intimidating aren’t they, but not to you.

But the scale of the suffering and the scope of the commitment often numb us into a kind of indifference.

Wishing for the end to AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa is like wishing that gravity didn’t make things so damn heavy. We can wish it, but what the hell can we do about it?

Well, more than we think. We can’t fix every problem — corruption, natural calamities are part of the picture here — but the ones we can we must.

The debt burden, as I say, unfair trade, as I say, sharing our knowledge, the intellectual copyright for lifesaving drugs in a crisis, we can do that. And because we can, we must. Because we can, we must. Amen.

This is the straight truth, the righteous truth. It’s not a theory, it’s a fact.

The fact is that this generation — yours, my generation — that can look at the poverty, we’re the first generation that can look at poverty and disease, look across the ocean to Africa and say with a straight face, we can be the first to end this sort of stupid extreme poverty, where in this world of plenty, a child can die for lack of food in its belly.

We can be the first generation. It might take a while, but we can be that generation that says no to stupid poverty.

It’s a fact — the economists confirm it. It’s an expensive fact, but cheaper than say the Marshall Plan that saved Europe from communism and fascism. And cheaper I would argue than fighting wave after wave of terrorism’s new recruits.

So why aren’t we pumping our fists in the air — and cheering about it? Well, probably because when we admit we can do something about it, we’ve got to do something about it.

For the first time in history we have the know-how, we have the cash, we have the lifesaving drugs — but do we have the will?

I know idealism is not playing on the radio right now, you don’t see it on TV, irony is on heavy rotation, the knowingness, the smirk, the tired joke.

I’ve tried them all out. But I’ll tell you this, idealism is under siege — beset by materialism, narcissism and all the other -isms of indifference.

Baggism, Shaggism, Raggism, Notism, graduationism, chismism, I don’t know. Where’s John Lennon when you need him?

Every era has its defining struggle — and the fate of Africa is one of ours. It’s not the only one, but in the history books it’s easily going to make the top five, what we did or what we did not do. It’s a proving ground for the idea of equality.

Adapted from Bono’s speech to the graduates of the University of Pennsylvania on May 17, 2004. For the full text, click here.