Global Issues

Eradicating extreme poverty doesn’t have to be a dream: Bono at TED2013

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In 2005, the TED Prize was given to Bono. Eight years later, Chris Anderson asks, has there been any progress? The U2 frontman is here to tell us. But first, some good-natured Anglo-Irish joshing. “Chris Anderson asked me if I could put the last 25 years of of anti-poverty campaigning into 10 minutes. That’s an Englishman asking an Irishman to be succinct?” Bono is incredulous; the audience seems happy to laugh at both nations.

Bono’s passion: countering what Nelson Mandela refers to as “that most awful offense to humanity, extreme poverty.” His weapon of choice? Facts. “Forget the rock opera, forget the bombast, my usual tricks,” he says. “The only thing singing today will be the facts. I have truly embraced my inner nerd. Exit the rock star.” He removes his trademark sunglasses. “Enter the evidence-based activist.” He puts his glasses back on upside down. Bono is now a “factivist.” And he has the infographic-filled slides to prove it.

Here’s the surprise: there’s a lot of good news. Since 2000, eight million AIDS patients have been receiving retroviral drugs; malaria deaths have been cut by 75%; child mortality rate of kids under 5 is down by 2.65 million deaths a year. “Let’s think about that,” he says. “Have you read anything, anywhere in the last week that is as remotely as important as that number? It’s great news, and it drives me nuts most people don’t know this.”

More stats. Bono clearly has good graphic designers on staff. The number of people living in soul-crushing poverty declined from 43% in 1990 to 33% in 2000 to 21% by 2010. The audience approves and yet, he acknowledges, the rate is still too high. “If you live on less than $1.25 a day, this is not just data. This is everything. If you’re a parent who wants the best for your kids, and I am, this rapid transition is a route out of despair and into hope.”


Can the trajectory continue? Bono has tracked it forward. “If the trajectory continues, look at the number of people living on a dollar a day by 2030: zero. That can’t be true, can it?” But it is. The Zero Zone is possible, even for troubled countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Think of the benefits if this actually transpires, Bono challenges. For one thing, he jokes, “you won’t have to listen to an insufferable jumped-up Jesus like myself.” And 2030 is just around the corner. “That’s only three Rolling Stones farewell concerts away.” The audience laughs, even more when the singer adds drily, “I’m hoping. They make us look really young.”

Here’s the rub. We can’t take any of this for granted. “The opportunity is real, but so is the jeopardy. We can’t get this done until we accept that we can get this done. Inertia is how we screw this up. Momentum is how we bend the arc of history down towards zero.” But fighting those who would stand in the way of positive progress is a responsibility for everyone. Fighting corruption is easier by means of transparency and openness, and it’s critical that we all play our part. He cites a report from Uganda, where millennials are reporting and exposing government corruption by means of 2G phones and SMS messages. 

“Once you have these tools, you can’t not use them. You can’t delete this data from your brain,” says Bono. “You can delete the cliché image from your brain of supplicant impoverished people not having control of their own lives. That’s not true.”

So can everyone here at TED also take up the cause, become so-called “factivists”? Bono’s on the hard sell. “We’re here to try and infect you with this virtuous database virus, the one we call factivism. It’s not going to kill you; it could save countless lives. We in the One campaign would love you to be contagious, spread it, share it, pass it on. By doing so, you will join us and countless others in what I truly believe is the greatest adventure ever taken. The ever-demanding journey of equality. Could we answer that clarion call of Nelson Mandela with science, reason, facts and dare I say it, emotion?”

In conclusion, Bono quotes Wael Ghonim, the former Googler who used social networking and technology tools with such effect in the Egyptian uprising. “I have his words tattooed on my brain,” says Bono. “We’re going to win because we don’t understand politics. We’re going to win because we don’t play their dirty games. We’re going to win because we don’t have an agenda. We’re going to win because the tears that comes from our eyes actually come from our hearts. We’re going to win because we have dreams. We’re going to win because we are willing to stand up for our dreams.”

“He’s right,” Bono reminds us. “We’ll win if we work together as one, the people. The power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power.” And, for the man who earlier confessed that applause was his weakness, a standing ovation.

Bono’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it here»