On 8 November, Bono presented the ONE Africa Award, which each year honours an African civil society organisation, before an audience of media leaders and journalist at the conclusion of the African Media Leaders Forum in Addis Ababa.
Incredibly I’ve been coming to Ethiopia for more than half my life. I say “incredibly” because in truth I still think of myself as 25. It’s a rockstar’s disease – we are encouraged not to grow up.
But I’ve been visiting here since the mid-1980s, and I really think there’s never been a more exciting time. You can feel it. It’s electric, and rockstars love electricity. I heard a local band last night with lots of electricity and talent – Jano.
It’s great to be here at a moment of transformation here in Addis, and here in Africa generally. Economically, socially, culturally, medically, technologically. Huge transformation.
And the rest of the world is starting to see it. The world is waking up to how extraordinarily wealthy the continent of Africa is in terms of its people, not just its resources. And that’s a big shift in the north, because all we heard for years and years was how poor you all were.
And being honest, I was complicit in this; dramatising the situation to make sure that the poorest people didn’t get forgotten. And again, to be brutally honest, to break through our own indifference. Some used a kind of poverty pornography to break through the noise to get our own governments to do less of what hurt, and more of what helped.
We fought to cancel cold war debts. We fought for funding for HIV/AIDS. We thought it absurd that what was a manageable disease for rich people was a death sentence for poor people.
We weren’t remotely interested in charity by the way, we were interested in justice. In our heads, you don’t need charity if justice is done. Now the meaning of justice in the 21st century may not have changed—but the ways of achieving it sure have.
Which is where we get to another transformation. The transformation of the media, and the technology that’s turbo charging it.
None of this is news to you because—well, you write the news! Traditional models of journalism are changing. This is true not just in Africa, of course, but where I come from as well. When almost everyone’s got a phone—and everyone with a phone is a broadcaster—what does it even mean to be a journalist today?
I know it’s a little early in the day to get existential on you, but bear with me a moment. The demand for information and the flow of information are unstoppable. We know this. But what’s still in short supply is what you provide. Analysis. Intelligence. Interpretation.
In other words: not just volume of information, but quality of information.
This, if you want to know my view, is what it means to be a journalist today. Using your professional insight to turn information into knowledge.
People, citizens, fact-based activists, the “factivists”, are depending on that. They’re demanding access to information that affects their lives. Economic development, social progress, human health – all this depends on open data. Not raw data, necessarily, but open data. Dug up in many cases by your efforts and made useful, made intelligible, by your analysis.
That’s how the transformation of media is helping drive the other transformations. The quality of governance depends on the quality of civil society, and the quality of civil society depends on the quality—the accuracy, the relevance—of information.
I’d like to pause on an issue that ONE has been working on, with the great Mo Ibrahim, to make sure that at least some of the wealth under the ground in resource-rich countries like Ethiopia ends up in the hands of the people living above it.
We were responding to civil society groups over here demanding transparency – demanding that we join with them in tackling corruption north and south of the equator.
ONE, working with Publish What You Pay, were thrilled to get a law passed in the US and the EU that forced all oil companies on those stock exchanges to reveal who they’re paying, for what, and where. Project by project, no exemptions.
We were thrilled. The oil companies were not. In fact the American Petroleum Institute has taken legal action to challenge this. In the US, they sued the SEC, presumably because they want to carry on their dealings in the dark. The court ruled in their favour. For the moment.
Are they blocking this because they understand a very simple equation?
Transparency plus insight equals transformation.
Why do oil companies not want the public to know how much they are paying for drilling rights? Why is opacity so important to big business?
Capital flight is always at night, in the dark. Phantom companies, with more wealth than some governments, can’t stand the daylight that would unmask who owns them.
We now know corporate and government corruption is killing more kids than any disease. But guess what? There is a vaccine and it is transparency.
We used to be known as the ‘get the cheque’ people. We’re still that, but now we are also the ‘follow the money’ people. And by we, I really mean YOU.
Which brings me to another equation: the relationship between freedom of information, stability and security. A little bit of a hot button topic at this conference.
I know where I stand on this, and over the week as I meet with the leadership I’ll be respectfully raising it. As I did with Prime Minister Meles, whom I was honoured to call a friend. The great thing about friendship is you can agree on some things and disagree on others. And we did.
Where I stand is that information, and the knowledge that flows from it, has enormous power to challenge inequality. Of course, it has enormous power to challenge everything—the whole order of things—which is why countries have often tried to control information. And when that doesn’t work, governments have tried to control journalists.
This is not good politics. Actually this is just not good. Full Stop. It’s also not the right thing to do. And let’s face it, today it’s becoming a physical impossibility, wherever you are in the world.
To try and pretend the revolution in information technology isn’t happening is like King Canute putting up his hand to try and stop the waves. You can’t stop the waves, they are tidal waves. I would encourage this government, which has done such incredible work on human development, to surf these waves. Not to fear journalism, but to encourage it.
Ethiopia has a story worth telling. A story the rest of the world should hear. The story of business leaders creating jobs, fighting and winning market share against the obstacles. The story of activists campaigning – and more and more succeeding – to keep their government honest. The government’s story of incredible success in halving extreme poverty and hunger in the last twenty years.
This government needs all these stories to be told.