A View from Jason Pontin
TED Day 1: Bono Heckles the Stage
The elite technology show has come to Africa. Africans are pleading for investment, which angers the Irish rock star.
Anderson somehow convinced about a thousand people to come to rural Tanzania.
Many of the princes of Silicon Valley are here, including Google’s Larry Page, the venture capitalist John Doerr, and Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline and Walker Digital. The rock star Bono (who suggested to Anderson that he host an African show) turned up. But there are people here from 40 countries, including (mercifully) many Africans.
Anderson says the purpose of the show is to tell the story of an Africa that is newly entrepreneurial, growing in wealth, more and more tech-savvy, and increasingly politically stable.
He says, “It’s a story that is unfolding in villages, towns, and cities across the continent–and it’s a story that’s not well known outside of Africa.”
So far, the show has been bluntly promotional. I felt I might have been attending a meeting of the heads of different African Chambers of Commerce. Indeed, the first speaker was the U.S. head of the South African Chamber of Commerce.
There have been some consistent themes. The first is that the media is morally culpable for propagating images of African poverty, famine, war, and despair. This made me feel impatient. Surely we can agree that while there are other, more benign stories in Africa, journalists are not misrepresenting reality when they write about poor, hungry, beaten, and despairing Africans?
But the second, more interesting theme–echoed by every speaker–is that traditional aid and charity, whether distributed by nation-states or nongovernmental bodies, have failed. Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist and social worker, now a fellow at Stanford, made the case most strongly. He argued convincingly that 30 years of Western aid to Africa has achieved nothing at all. More, he said that the persistence of African poverty could be explained, in part, by aid. He explained that aid had convinced the brightest Africans to work for corrupt governments rather than as entrepreneurs, and it had “distorted the incentive structure.”
“What man or nation,” Mwenda asked, “has ever become rich by holding out a begging bowl?”
Far better, he said, is finding Westerners to invest in African entrepreneurs or businesses, which would create wealth. Mwenda, like other speakers, described at length the investment opportunities in Africa. (I half expected the pitch to be directly addressed to Doerr et al.)
This line of argument enraged Bono, however, who began heckling Mwenda.
“Bollocks!” he shouted. “That’s bullshit.”
Bono is a strong supporter of intelligently managed aid. When it came his turn to speak, he said that Ireland’s current prosperity is explained by government investment in its people, particularly education. He said that listening to Mwenda was like listening to an African Margaret Thatcher.
Oh, and everything you’ve heard about Bono’s height is entirely true: he really is remarkably short.