From red specs to red state? Not quite, but we’ll take it!
Speaking to a conference of tech entrepreneurs and investors in Ireland on Friday, U2 singer Bono – one of the world’s leading advocates of well-intentioned but destructive policies to help the poor in the developing world – announced he had come to the realization that capitalism and innovative entrepreneurship are the only long-term path to success for developing nations. Yes, you read that right.
He even admitted that this was a “humbling” realization for him, saying that he had “got into this as a righteous anger activist with all the cliches.”
The Irish singer and co-founder of ONE, a campaigning group that fights poverty and disease in Africa, said it had been “a humbling thing for me” to realize the importance of capitalism and entrepreneurialism in philanthropy, particularly as someone who “got into this as a righteous anger activist with all the cliches.”
“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.” [ea]
Here’s my thinking. A big change has been slowly percolating for a while in the Christian international aid space. On-the-ground practice has not changed yet. But their social system of legitimization – the network of gatekeepers who anoint what’s good and what’s bad – are increasingly embracing the need for the kinds of changes we want. Bono is only the most recent example.
And it’s getting harder and harder to dismiss this as partisan rhetoric or libertarian ideology as more and more people who self-identify as progressives are getting on the bandwagon. Again, Bono is only the most recent example.
The big aid organizations have responded by adopting the rhetoric of change. I recall seeing promotional materials from World Vision that talked about helping people develop economic independence. Of course they’re not actually doing that, but the fact that they have to say they are is a canary in the coal mine for them.
It’s a little like how Democratic judicial nominees now have to clothe themselves in the rhetoric of judicial restraint in a way they never had to fifteen years ago. Or how the teachers’ unions have had to adopt the rhetoric of teacher performance and even choice. Or how President Obama has had to adopt the rhetoric of free enterprise and even pick up Arthur Brooks’ “earned success” language. As in those fields, so in this one: it’s an early sign that we’re winning. The gap between their words and their deeds will grow, and the pressure for real change is only going to get bigger.
They key for us now, as I see it, is to capitalize on this change without falling into either of two pitfalls. On the one hand, we don’t want to drive away our new friends. Joe Sunde’s skepticism in the post I linked above, while reasonable, needs to be tempered somewhat. We don’t want to punish people for moving in our direction, we want to reward them! (We believe that incentives affect behavior, right?)
Another way we would risk pushing people away is by claiming that only people who call themselves conservatives are welcome at the table. I can see why it would make sense from a certain point of view to label the things Bono said in that talk as “conservative,” but not everyone shares that point of view, and that’s not the hill I think we should die on. If Bono doesn’t see it that way, I’m not going to get in a fight with him about it. The important thing is, we now agree to some extent on what needs to happen; let’s roll up our sleeves and do it together!
On the other hand, Sunde’s skepticism has a sound basis. We need to stay true to our principles and not make unnecessary concessions to Bono in order to capitalize on his support. As Sunde points out, Bono is still legitimizing aid as a “bridge” to capitalistic development. Like Sunde, I fully expect that when push comes to shove Bono is going to be opposed to a lot of the real-world reforms that we need to make.
We have to uphold our whole view and not seek a “grand bargain” in which harmful aid structures are retained in exchange for inadequate pilot projects labeled “reform.” This is a mistake the education reform movement made in the 1990s – something I know a little about since I’m part of that movement. We supported increased spending on the wasteful and harmful status quo in order to pay off the unions to accept token pilot reforms. The token reforms were underwhelming or at best moderately successful, because they were too small and constrained to make a big difference. But the increased spending remains in perpetuity.
Instead, let’s find common ground that’s worth building on. Bono says aid needs to be a bridge to capitalism. Okay, what reforms is he willing to make to the aid programs? That’s the measure of his seriousness. If he shows up at the table supporting serious reform, then we should meet him halfway. If not, we can stick to quoting his statements when we advocate serious reform.
Either way, this is still a win!