Raising up the “bottom billion”
When it comes to fighting poverty, Bono finally found what he was looking for
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In an extensive profile last month ahead of the release of a new memoir, the New York Times Magazine interviewed the enigmatic pop star Bono. At one point Bono, the front man for the enormously successful band U2 and a darling of American evangelicals, tells his interviewer: “If I could impart one thing to you in this exchange it’s that I’m a student.”
There is some real truth to that, whether looking at Bono as an artist or an activist. As U2’s music has evolved, so has Bono’s approach to the problem of poverty. If Bono’s music has developed from punk to pop, then his activism has grown from agitation against business to appreciation for the role of business and profits in generating wealth. In his words, “I ended up as an activist in a very different place from where I started. I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. I now know that’s not true.”
So what is true? What was Bono looking for in all the years of his anti-poverty activism that he finally found? As he puts it, “The off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce, it’s entrepreneurial capitalism.” He goes on to discuss what economists have called “the Great Enrichment,” the period of time from roughly 1750 to the present in which per-capita GDP across the world has grown exponentially, even as world populations have continued to increase as well.
Economically, the Great Enrichment is perhaps the defining feature of the modern world, and it is routinely underappreciated, taken for granted, ignored, or even vilified. The global numbers tell part of the story, but they do not adequately account for what the massive growth in wealth across the world has meant for those in the poorest countries.
In India, 415 million people were raised out of poverty over a 15-year period, between 2005-2006 and 2019-21, and that nation has almost “wiped out” extreme poverty. In just one year, nearly a half million Kenyans moved out of extreme poverty as the country recovered from the global pandemic. In Vietnam, the World Bank reports, “poverty declined impressively” over the last decade.
The big story of global economic enrichment is made up of billions of individual stories of poor people being connected to circles of exchange, enjoying the legal protection of the rule of law, and engaging their gifts and talents to serve their neighbors and people all over the world, and to do so productively.
What changed Bono’s mind is both the undeniable reality of incredible economic growth as well as intellectual honesty and a tangible concern for, as he puts it, “the bottom billion.” He expresses concerns with capitalism, characterizing it as “a wild beast” in need of domestication. “But,” admits Bono, “globalization has brought more people out of poverty than any other ism.”
The younger Bono—just like so many well-meaning activists today—was looking for heroes, someone to save the poor from their plight. Sometimes these advocates see themselves as the heroes, bringing sophistication and intelligence to the afflicted poor. And Bono confesses that he has found these heroic figures in what he would have thought of as an unlikely place: “I didn’t grow up to like the idea that we’ve made heroes out of businesspeople, but if you’re bringing jobs to a community and treating people well, then you are a hero.” And these businesspeople are not just corporate executives of global multinationals investing in developing nations. These businesspeople are indigenous entrepreneurs and native risk-takers who creatively seek to find ways to bring goods and services to market.
And that is perhaps Bono’s most significant discovery, that heroes are to be found not just among those who are already rich in material terms. Each one of us has the capacity to be heroic in this sense, to find ways to serve God through serving others. God has gifted each individual person with a purpose and with a calling to seek out ways of loving our neighbors—and providing jobs to workers, goods and services to customers, and profit to investors are all concrete ways of loving and doing good to others.
Decades ago Bono played a leading role in creating what has often been called the worst Christmas song of all time because of its patronizing posture towards people in developing countries. But the hope for delivery from material deprivation that Bono finally found was in the people of those poor nations themselves, and that is a discovery worth celebrating.
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