Bono and the box of cookies

By Manus Lenihan

Recent weeks have seen a sudden surge in criticism of ONE, the non-profit organisation led by Bono and other philanthropists. In late September the New York Post called attention to the fact that in 2008, the most recent year for which records are available, ONE took in almost $15 million in donations and spent under $150,000 on aid. Meanwhile, about $8 million was spent on the salaries of ONE’s 120 executives and employees.

The story spread and the Post’s website buzzed with furious user comments. While some rallied around ONE after its response that the organisation is an advocacy group and not a charity, others were not so sympathetic, calling Bono a “typical jet setting elite” and a “limousine liberal”.

In the past, aid experts such as Jobs Selasie have claimed that Bono’s charitable efforts do more harm than good. Bono dismissed Selasie, saying that they he and other critics were simply “carping from the sidelines”, but like the aid question, high-budget advocacy groups merit examination rather than unconditional praise.

The incident that sparked the media criticism is in itself worth outlining. As the Millennium Development Goals summit opened in New York, ONE attempted to raise awareness by sending boxes containing expensive items to several major newspaper offices.Each box contained a $20 bottle of water along with a note explaining that this was a reminder of the need for clean water in the developing world.

The note went on to say that many poverty-stricken African children live on less than $1.25 a day – “about the cost of the cookie in this box”. As well as the large black-and-white cookie in question, boxes contained a $15 bag of Starbucks fair-trade coffee, a small tin of band-aids, two pens shaped like syringes, a $15 Moleskine leather notebook and a ruler inscribed with the words, “measuring progress on the Millennium Development Goals”.

The New York Post, one of the recipients, published a scathing article on the stunt, leading with the words “Nothing says ‘wipe out AIDS and poverty’ like band-aids and a black-and-white cookie”. These “media kits”, to use ONE’s own term, came in for widespread mockery and criticism, and the spectacle drew attention to the organisation’s poor charitable record.

In response, a ONE spokesperson insisted that the organisation does “advocacy work, not charity work”. Norman Coleman of the American Accountability Network has praised ONE’s work. He claimed that attacking its charitable record is “like criticising General Motors for not making iPods.”

ONE, according to its statement on the controversy, raises no funds from the public, instead relying on wealthy philanthropists. As for the boxes, “In hindsight, [they] were not the best way to gain attention for the issues and we regret that sending them distracted from the work we are trying to do.”

For those who are curious, the work in question is described at length on ONE’s website. The verbs alone say a lot about the organisation’s tactics: over the years it has “called for”, “asked”, “encouraged”, “urged” and “helped convince” governments to meet their aid targets. According to the web page, Haitian debt cancellation talks following the earthquake happened “thanks to the more than 200,000 ONE members who signed a petition worldwide.” At the G8 summit in 2008 “ONE used billboards, an open letter and chocolate” to highlight extreme poverty.

On the 2006 Global Day of Action “more than 6,000 ONE members organized house parties across the US.” Last year between 16-18 October, 173 million people around the world, including a U2 gig audience, squatted down then literally stood up to show their support for ONE’s cause.

Thus ONE gives us a curious version of recent history, in which governments are swayed toward making greater aid commitments by petitions, house parties and large numbers of people rising from a squatting to a standing position. Certainly Live 8, which ONE helped to promote, raised awareness about the world’s inequalities. Exactly how much it contributed to the cancellation of 12 per cent of developing world debt is a difficult question to answer, however.
An equally difficult question, because advocacy is difficult to quantify, is whether spending $15 million annually on advocacy produces $15 million worth of results for the world’s poorest people.

This year’s Millennium Development Goals summit came close to being an admission of failure. Already modest progress toward the targets has been thrown off-track by crises in food, fuel and finance. Governments, now driven by a need for austerity and fiscal restraint, are unlikely to make any significant donations for the foreseeable future – never mind meeting the required $30 billion annual increase in aid between over the next five years. It is hard to imagine groups like ONE persuading them to do so.