Bono should change his tune
Published by The ipaper (12th March, 2018)
Sunday, bloody Sunday. The Irish pop star Bono must have woken yesterday and thought: ‘I can’t believe the news today.’ He must have wished he could close his eyes and make it go away, to misquote his most powerful song. For there was his face on the front of The Mail on Sunday and spread over three pages inside were hideously damning allegations of abuse, bullying, sexual harassment and tax evasion in his ONE organisation’s African headquarters that were aided and abetted for years in London and Washington.
And yes, how long must we sing this song? For here was another aid giant, another group posing as secular saints while preaching about social justice, exposed for grotesque behaviour towards weaker people. ONE joins a lengthening list of sleazy miscreants that includes Oxfam, Save The Children, World Vision and the United Nations. Each time the charges are different, ranging from sex parties in a disaster zone to protecting bosses from harassment claims. But behind them lie the same issues: dreadful abuse of power followed by desperate attempts to protect brands that have grown so valuable in a swollen industry that achieves so little.
Bono will take much fire, not least given his past claims to speak for the voiceless and vulnerable. And let’s be honest, many people find him insufferable. I respect his desire to do good. But criticism is inevitable when you harness the power of celebrity to push your pet cause, especially if your glossy organisation then sins. The singer has said he would like to meet the abuse victims to apologise in person. ‘What will he do,’ asked ‘Sibu’, the woman alleging she was offered as bait to an MP. ‘Shake my hand and take selfies with us and continue to play the Messiah?’
This woman told me how she is traumatised by her experiences working for a group that claims to fight for female equality. Her confidence is shattered, her marriage broken. Like too many others, she joined full of excitement and commitment to the cause only to find her illusions shattered along with her career. Last night the seven ex-staff suing the organisation for damages issued a statement declining the rock star’s invitation to hook up. ‘We are sure that even Bono appreciates that meeting us right now might just be seen as a PR stunt for ONE to look good but without attending to the compensation of the victims of their abuses,’ they said.
Others in ONE deserve far more ire than its titular head Bono, including his ONE co-founder Jamie Drummond. Yet in his apology, the singer said that when he learned of these allegations they made him question what he was doing. Let us pray that is true. For a start, he could retire that jaded aid narrative, not least since he runs an organisation that to its credit relies on corporate donors. ‘They are still stuck in the 1970s,’ said one former leading player in ONE, who rightly argues aid is corrosive and increasingly unwanted in Africa. I gather Bono privately shares such qualms; in public, he has called himself an ‘aid sceptic’.
Then he could stop arguing for countries to meet the silly 0.7 per cent aid target. After all he, his band and his advocacy organisation have all been exposed for tax dodging now. One source told me a campaign for tax transparency had to be pulled at the last minute when Bono’s name popped up in the Panama Papers. And it is ridiculous to campaign for tax fairness with a board containing the boss of Facebook – a firm that is such a notorious tax avoider – and a director of Caterpillar, which is at the centre of a criminal probe on tax and has been accused by the US Congress of gross avoidance.
Such double standards have become all too typical in this sector as it swelled to obese proportions, assisted by political paymasters using other people’s money to look compassionate. Note again the six-figure salaries, with ONE’s chief executive taking home almost £350,000 a year. Drummond and his wife, who is ONE’s head of marketing, collectively pocket even more. This body held a board meeting at Claridges, one of London’s most luxurious hotels. The Africa director took business class flights on the continent. Clearly it’s tough at the top of the poverty industry.
Still this organisation seeks to spin out of trouble while talking of transparency. Internal emails say they must ‘own this institutional failure’. It is trying to dump all blame for bullying on one woman who ran the Africa office until 2015 and a chief executive who has died. But abuse went on until last year. And the culture of cover went far wider. They must also resolve painful questions put by distressed former staffers, who ask if the abuse would have been permitted so long if the victims were Western? ‘Heads would have rolled,’ said one. ‘But it was like we were meant to be grateful for having jobs. We were just black Africans.’
Bono’s organisation stands charged with hypocrisy on core issues of female empowerment, openness, tax fairness and social justice. But the issues raised go well beyond ONE. This is a sector filled with charities and firms that have become arrogant and bloated, contemptuous of those they claim to help and dismissive of those that dare challenge their ideas or idols. They slot into elites that ignore the dispossessed and powerless while promoting their own interests. They use naive celebrities as cannon-fodder for their cause. This is not rebel music. If Bono really wants to help the world, he should start singing a different song.