World Aids Day: the battle has only just begun

Last year, a special issue of The Independent, edited by Bono, introduced a new way of raising money to fight HIV/Aids. Since then, the (Red) initiative has raised more than $50m and helped more than ONE million people. In an exclusive interview, Bono tells Paul Vallely why people in rich nations can make a difference to the Aids disaster
Click to follow

In a world of calibrated cynicism here's something unabashedly positive to celebrate today to mark what is the 20th occasion that people across the globe have commemorated if that's the right word World Aids Day. The words come from the man who is now as honoured as a campaigner against extreme poverty as he is as front man for the world's biggest-selling rock band.

"Three years ago," says Bono, the lead singer of U2, "there was virtually no one in Africa on antiretroviral drugs. Now you'll have two million by the end of this year."

Two million is, of course, only a fraction of those affected by the disease which has to date killed more than 25 million people making it one of the most destructive epidemics in human history. Another estimated 40 million people are now living with HIV. But the international community is, for the first time, showing real signs of progress in combating the disease on a significant scale.

That fact is, in no small measure, down to the campaigning of the impassioned Irish vocalist, who has lobbied governments for action and corralled some of the world's biggest businesses into playing their part which is why this newspaper, for the fourth time, turns itself (Red) today.

Since it was founded 20 months ago, (Red) has donated an extraordinary $50,005,410 (24,324,379) to the Global Fund to fights Aids, TB and Malaria. "Do the maths," says Bono. "It costs about $5 a week to pay for the two pills a day it takes to keep someone with HIV alive."

Aids is no longer a death sentence. Antiretroviral medication will bring someone who is at death's door back to virtually full health. Doctors call itthe Lazarus effect.

More than 20 per cent of all funding to fight Aids now comes from the Global Fund. An extra $50m in its coffers means that a million people who would previously have died have are being kept alive, day in day out, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. That is in addition to the extra anti-Aids drugs being provided by governments under the Gleneagles promises. It is nearly double the numbers treated by the Global Fund the year before. "That's what readers of The Independent helped kick off and there's a lot more where that came from."

Bono continues to ride two horses in all this. Yesterday he was holed up in a studio in the south of France with the rest of his band working on the next U2 album.

"We're just beginning the processes. We did some recording in Morocco last year. All the band went to an amazing religious music festival in Fez with some incredible sufi singers. It was a real humbling thing for a punk rock shouter, listening to these people who just close their eyes for 40 minutes and sing the most sophisticated melodies.

"We got this little riad, a small hotel with a courtyard in the middle and set up the band there, with a square of sky over our head. The two great catalysts of U2's recording life, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, joined us. We'd record during the day and then disappear into windy streets of the medina at night.It was an inspiring experience and a drummer's paradise."

Now, he says, they are trying to get their heads around what they recorded. "World music this is not," he says, though U2 fans will "feel the difference". Polyrhythmic is the word he chooses with a self-deprecating laugh. "U2 in dancefloor shock. Normally when you play a U2 tune, it clears the dancefloor. And that may not be true of this. There's some trance influences. But there's some very hardcore guitar coming out of The Edge. Real molten metal. It's not like anything we've ever done before, and we don't think it sounds like anything anyone else has done either."

Yet, for all that, campaigning for Africa has claimed a significant part of Bono's time over the past 12 months. He has travelled extensively to check on whether the promises of increased aid and debt cancellation made at Gleneagles after Live8 have been made good. "The most important thing to tell people is that, according to figures to be announced by the World Bank and OECD next week, an extra 26 million African children are going to school now because of debt cancellation."

In Tanzania he saw the impact of that in the classroom. "Two years ago an extra 1.5 million went to school. Last year that figure went up to three million. Where there were seven children to a desk now there's four. Instead of one book per desk there's now three.

"In Ghana there's a ghetto just outside Accra called Nima." Some 70,000 people lived there without any sanitation whatsoever when he visited five years ago. "I was back there last year and peeing in this public bathroom and looked up and saw a sign saying paid for by HIPC that's the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative. That's debt relief."

What has been preoccupying him is building a movement to do in the United States what Make Poverty History did in the UK. "The British people and government have been global leaders in the fight against poverty, and the recent spending review confirms that. So people here forget that things are nowhere near so advanced in other places."

The lobbying organisation he and Bob Geldof founded, DATA, ran a massive campaign to lift global poverty up the domestic agenda in Germany before the last G8 there, with a level of success which surprised many commentators. They are doing the same in Japan ahead of the next G8. But the market to crack is the United States. "We need a Make Poverty History in the United States and we're working on one. It's called The One Campaign and we have 2.5 million Americans signed up." But they need far more.

That is, in part, what the (Red) campaign is about. Shopping is what Bono calls the gateway drug to wider activism. "A lot of the time we're working on governments, and talking about billions in debt relief and multibillion-dollar Aids initiatives launched by the G8. But there's something personal about (Red). People are always asking: 'What can I do personally?' And we always say get out on the streets, get organised, sign up to Oxfam or Save the Children or Christian Aid. But they say: 'What else can I do?' And (Red) gives them that, even while they're buying their Christmas presents."

There are some sceptics to be convinced. Organisations like have accused (Red) of encouraging over-consumption. Others say that what goes to the Global Fund is only a fraction of what (Red) partners like Armani, American Express and Apple spend on marketing. Bono is unimpressed. "Our attitude is that if people make the right choices then buying more stuff is buying also more Aids drugs for Africans."

Buying a pair of Armani sunglasses pays for 53 doses of nevirapine which prevents the transmission of HIV from mother to child during child birth. "I'm not going to challengepeople's buying habits. That's a matter for them. But if they want to buy an iPod they might as well buy a (Red) one and know that somebody's little sister or somebody's big brother is going to see another year."

(Red) has another key component. "What people in the UK don't understand is that in the US though we had the churches and the campuses, Hollywood and the hip-hop community we never had the shopping malls." Going about their ordinary business in their constituencies it was easy for US politicians to forget that 5,500 people are dying a day of a preventable disease. They can't forget that now. It's in their face, courtesy of Gap or Motorola. If they walk into an Armani to buy a party frock they'll see a gigantic collection of (Red) clothes beautifully designed by Giorgio." The potent ads of these big business now scream Aids awareness messages.

If (Red) has made things personal so has some of the criticism. Bono has been attacked for being "both a punk rocker and a multimillionaire. They see a contradiction in that. Well I don't. I'd much rather be known as tough in business than some kind of Mother Teresa figure. I don't buy into this idea that all artists are above material stuff. People sense the bullshit in that. You've got to go back to why you joined a band in the first place. We always had two instincts. We wanted to have fun. And we wanted to change the world. And if we could do both at the same time then we'd be happy."

As to the notion that all commerce is tainted: "People who know anything about extreme poverty know that the way to get people out of it is not aid but trade, it's commerce".

He tells a story of how he was booed at a conference in Africa recently. "I was accused of just being about aid and not business enough. Africans have this deep desire to be in charge of their own destiny. They are instinctively entrepreneurial and they know that if they can get a level playing field on trade they are more than capable of getting themselves out of extreme poverty.

"Those who say that commerce is part of the problem not the solution should tell that to someone in Lesotho whosefactory has closed down because the manufacture has moved to China," he says, with a rare touch of asperity to his tone.

He is equally impatient with African ideologues who say that all aid is bad for the continent. "Whenever you see Africans saying they don't want aid it's pretty clear it's not their sisters, brothers, cousins who are dying for lack of the few cents a day for the two little pills that would keep them alive."

His key message is that individuals whether they are punk rockers marching with priests and nuns on the G8 or Christmas shoppers in high-street stores can make a difference. "People need to know that by marching on Gleneagles they made the world a better place. It was a real moment in history. Naysayers who belittle that take the wind out of the sails of momentum. We mustn't lose momentum."

For Bono that message is both personal and political. He hopes to have a new U2 album out next year. "We have enough material for two albums but it has to be extraordinary. And I think we've got that." On the (Red) front he is no more modest. He has two "gigantic" new partners to be announced in January and, on Valentine's Day, a (Red) Art Auction with many of the world's top living artists contributing major pieces.

"Next year is going to be a great year for (Red). But The Independent should be very proud because it was our first associate. A $50m contribution to the Global Fund is about the best Christmas present anyone could ever have."