Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, has become arguably as famous for his alleged philanthropy as for his day job as front man for veteran Irish rockers U2. Within the past week, he unveiled a new publicity campaign through his organization, the ONE Campaign, intended to draw attention and direct aid towards the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa by referring to famine as “The F Word.” It’s a clever idea, but something absolutely crucial is missing, without which the campaign is largely missing the point. While Bono’s own writings and the website of the ONE Campaign do mention violence and political instability afflicting the region, and even refer to the famine as “man-made,” the actual causes of this disruption are completely ignored.
At the end of 2006, Ethiopian military forces invaded Somalia, quickly routed the amateurish militia fighters of the governing Islamic Courts Union, and seized control of Mogadishu. They did this at the behest of the Bush Administration, whose role in encouraging and funding the invasion was stated openly at the time. More information has come to light recently thanks to Wikileaks, however, specifically the extent to which the Bush Administration had to cajole and essentially twist the arms of a very reluctant Ethiopian government. The motive was simple: the United States has always supported the Transitional Federal Government, a group of exiles who purport to rule Somalia from their headquarters in Kenya. Under the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia had seen impressive (if wildly uneven) economic growth, but this did not deter Washington. The Islamic Courts Union had usurped the position of Washington’s favored partners, plus they had the word “Islamic” in their names, so they were targeted for overthrow.
The result has been catastrophic. A swift Ethiopian victory quickly became a draining counterinsurgency as Somali forces regrouped, leading to a withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in 2009. Civil war has raged in and around Somalia ever since, with hundreds of thousands of people (at minimum) displaced and thousands killed by the conflict, along with a near-complete collapse of the country’s recent economic progress. The Obama administration has continued the policy of intervention, with a series of recent drone strikes and alleged involvement of covert elements, all in an effort to bolster favored factions.
As a result of all of this, the people of the Horn of Africa have been completely unable to manage a particularly bad drought, leading to the catastrophe now occurring. This pattern of cause and effect is completely absent from the rhetoric of the ONE Campaign, leading observers of their work to conclude that the man-made famine was entirely made in Africa. Bono may be well aware of this, but his pattern of activism since the mid-1980s makes it clear that he seeks to curry favor with politicians of various ideological stances around the world, in order to better ameliorate the results of the actions of these same politicians. To use the terminology of Bono’s own industry, his own philanthropy could use a remastering, if not a complete remix. The present, longstanding path of his activism is not only possibly self-defeating, but ominously could be leading to apathy and “donor fatigue” as the same story repeats again and again.