The Odd Couple Tour

Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese attends the opening night premiere of "SOS" at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2007, in New York. His last film, "The Departed" won an Oscar in February.
Talk about odd couples - Paul O'Neill, the ramrod straight, silver-haired Republican treasury secretary, and Bono, the shaggy-haired, Irish rock star with the wraparound sunglasses.

They are pairing up, not for the summer concert circuit, but a 10-day tour of some of the most destitute countries in the world in sub-Saharan Africa.

The idea for the tour, which will make stops in Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and Ethiopia, was hatched after an initial meeting in O'Neill's office a year ago, a discussion O'Neill says he was first very reluctant to have.

"I said, 'He just wants to use me and I don't have time for this,'" O'Neill recounted recently. He relented and agreed to a 30-minute meeting which expanded into a 90-minute brainstorming session with O'Neill coming away impressed at the depth of Bono's knowledge and commitment.

"He understood economic theory and he understood the impact of colonialism. He knew what it was like to go into an HIV-AIDS clinic and see three people in a bed all dying together and care about it and know it doesn't have to be that way," O'Neill said.

Bono's concern about Africa dates back to 1984 when his rock band U2 participated in concerts to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Bono and his wife spent six weeks working in an orphanage in Ethiopia to learn firsthand how bad conditions were.

Since then, he has become a tireless advocate for Africa, first in a lengthy campaign to get the Group of Eight top industrial countries to provide greater debt relief for the world's poorest countries and now as the founder of Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa (DATA).

"I am a pest. I am a stone in the shoe of a lot of people living here in this town, a squeaky wheel," Bono said after an appearance with President Bush back in March when the president announced a program to boost U.S. development aid to $40 billion over three years, an increase of $10 billion over current projected U.S. support.

However, the administration's proposal, dubbed the Millennium Challenge Account, comes with strings - a demand that the money be given only to countries that are working to eliminate corruption and reform their economic systems.

O'Neill has been a major proponent inside the administration for this tough-love approach, contending that trillions of dollars in aid has been wasted.

Bono, who was a favorite of the Democratic Clinton administration, has proven adept at working in more conservative times.

Earlier this year, he traveled to Africa with Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a surgeon. Frist has now teamed with Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to support a $500 million program aimed at halting transmission of AIDS from pregnant mothers in Africa to their children.

"There is no reason why we cannot eliminate, or nearly eliminate, mother-to-child transmissions of AIDS," argues Helms, who says he regrets spending so much of his early career fighting AIDS programs.

Rep. Sonny Callahan of Alabama, a key Republican on foreign aid matters in the House, has joked that Bono has spent so much time in his office lobbying for Africa that the two should be called the "the Sonny and Bono show."

On the May 20-31 Africa trip, O'Neill and Bono will visit schools, AIDS clinics and various World Bank development projects. O'Neill is hoping to use the extra press attention generated by Bono's presence to promote the administration's development overhaul plans.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the issue of fighting poverty to eliminate a major breeding ground for terrorists has gained momentum and will be a top agenda item of the G-8 countries at their June summit in Canada.

"It is possible for the two of us to see life through each other's eyes," O'Neill said last week in previewing the trip. "I'm going to get a set of blue wraparound glasses and I'm going to give him a gray wig."

By Martin Crutsinger