An eclectic group of business leaders, government officials, activists, and one certified rock star gathered for the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) Global Leadership Award Dinner in New York Wednesday night. UNA-USA and the Business Council for the United Nations (BCUN) honored those who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
Ruth Barohn reports for U2log.com with Tasha Hindman
Among those in attendance were Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations; Ted Turner, Chairman of the United Nations Foundation; Tommy Thompson, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services; Tom Freston, Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks; and U2 singer and activist Bono.
They came to honor Dr. Henry McKinnell, Chairman and CEO of Pfizer Inc., with the 2003 Global Leadership Award, and Dr. Alex Godwin Coutinho, Executive Director of The Aids Support Organization (TASO), as the 2003 Global Humanitarian Action Honoree.
An event of this nature is not exactly the place one would expect to find the lead singer of, arguably, the world’s biggest rock and roll band. However, the HIV/AIDS pandemic crippling the African continent has made Bono a familiar face with the political and business world’s elite.
Tom Freston introduced Bono to the audience, praising the musician’s efforts and acknowledging his determination in bringing the plague of HIV/AIDS to the minds of every person and to the head of every nation’s foreign policy agenda — and for keeping it there.
“Let me tell you something about Bono: he is embarrassed by all of this,” Freston said. “Bono does this only because he believes that this is a problem we can solve. He thinks that celebrities look foolish when they stand up on soapboxes, and figures that maybe nothing makes a rock star look less cool than hanging out with politicians or pulling out statistical printouts. You know, Elvis Presley never made a political statement. Keith Richards, he doesn’t do charity events. And you never saw Jimi Hendrix behind a podium. But Bono does it all because he cannot stand by and do nothing while people are dying. And if he has to sacrifice looking cool to get the word out, I know he figures that’s a small price to pay. And I know that makes him, actually, much more than cool.”
Freston continued to describe why Bono has become a catalyst and a force for progress and change: “This is a guy who believes in miracles. His whole life has been a miracle. Bono always said that if four teenage kids from Dublin who couldn’t even play their instruments could decide to become the biggest rock band in the world and then really pull it off — well, then he refuses to accept that anything else that he could do is impossible.”
In conclusion Freston recognized Bono as “a man who manages to set the moral compass for the rest of us, while still making great records, huge concert tours, and fathering a whole brood of children in the fine Irish tradition.”
“I’m not that embarrassed,” Bono replied to Freston’s introduction jokingly. “As Tom was talking about, it is unhip work, it’s not very cool, and I don’t think of myself as very cool. I’m not. I’m Irish, I’m passionate, and I’m hot. But I’ll tell you…”
The audience interrupted Bono’s speech with laughter.
“Sorry, I think ‘hot’ means something different in America,” Bono laughed.
What Bono is hot, or angry, about is the 6,500 Africans dying each day of AIDS. However, he is also encouraged by the leadership of the United Nations and America.
“The other members of the U.N. don’t always agree with America,” Bono acknowledged, “but the institution still reflects the ambition, the vision, the gall of America. America is the birthplace of innovative solutions to old problems, of an impatience with the status quo. America is the most compelling and confounding place in this world. I’m a fan. That’s the spirit we need to draw on — the U.S., the U.N., every person in this room — for the sake of a continent half a world away, represented by U.N. ambassadors here tonight; for the sake of the dazzling potential of Africa’s smart and struggling people; for the sake of Africa’s future; and — what I’d really like you to think about — for the sake of our own because we are connected, bound together.”
Dr. Alex Godwin Coutinho is one man who has helped thousands of Africans realize their potential. Coutinho, a native Ugandan, founded TASO in 1987. TASO’s integrated approach recognizes that HIV/AIDS is not only a medical problem but also an issue that crosses familial and cultural boundaries. The organization has more than 80,000 registered patients and 22,000 people receiving direct care and support.
Bono described Coutinho as “an extraordinary person, a remarkable man who runs a remarkable organization.”
“The path has led him here, but not without sacrifice,” Bono said. “The work he’s doing is among the most important in Africa. The compassion that I’ve seen him bring to it is kind of unmatched. He is a really remarkable man. The least we can do is thank him, honor him. But we have to promise that we will support him. That’s what tonight is about.”
Bono then brought Dr. Coutinho to the stage to accept the Global Humanitarian Action Award, confessing to the audience, “I am not a very humble person; I’m a rock star. I love it, but I am truly, truly humbled to stand here on stage and to meet an actual hero.”
On acceptance of the award, Dr. Coutinho said, “It’s been great working with Bono. He has been to Uganda before on two occasions at least and visited TASO. He brings with him a tremendous amount of personal charisma and compassion, but he also brings with him the ability to influence a lot of other people to get involved in HIV and AIDS. So tonight’s function, and its success, is partly because Bono will be here to present those awards. He continues making sure nobody forgets that HIV/AIDS is probably the most important issue in Africa today. I think that HIV and AIDS needs, very much, a sustained approach. You can’t do it for one day and then leave it aside for twelve months and then do it again on World AIDS Day. You really need a sustained pressure and advocacy, and Bono has done that. Our challenge is to do it in Africa as effectively as he does.”
The United Nations Association of the United States of America and the Business Council for the United Nations honored heroes this evening. If each person can, in Bono’s words, “Just communicate to the politicians that this is an important issue for them — the politicians are very, very nervous, in an election year — that would help.” You can be a hero too.
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Of his attendance at such events, since co-founding the Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa (DATA) organization in 2001, Bono said, “For three years now I’ve been crashing the gate, rushing the stage at any multinational meeting I can find — IMF, World Economic Forum, the UN — I’m there. The band thinks I’m becoming what they call a ‘G8 groupie.’ Well, I am, of a kind. I am an annoying fan and I do know the middle name of the bass player’s brother. So if you’ve seen me play gigs like this before it’s because I’ve got this song that I am singing, and I keep thinking that if I sing it loud enough and insistent enough — well, then Popes or presidents, bankers or bureaucrats, heads of extraordinary corporations will join the growing chorus of a sane response to what is an insane situation. I’m singing a song that has one of the strongest melodies that I have ever heard. And you hear it and you can’t get it out of your head. It’s haunting. You hear 6,500 Africans die every day of a preventable, treatable disease. It’s not really fair to describe me as a rock star with a cause. I have causes and you’ll hear from me on them, but AIDS is not a cause; AIDS is an emergency. And what’s happening in Africa is not a cause. It is an emergency.”
HIV/AIDS is an emergency that requires a partnership between business and government. According to the UNA-USA, under Dr. Henry McKinnell’s leadership, Phizer Inc., the world’s largest research-based pharmaceutical company, was the first top-10 New York Stock Exchange member to sign the U.N. Global Compact, which is an international initiative that seeks to hold companies to human rights, labor, and environmental standards. McKinnell has also worked with several nonprofit organizations to build a Uganda teaching facility aimed at training doctors and nurses throughout Africa as well as established the International HIV/AIDS Literacy Grants and Pfizer Global Health Fellows programs. Dr. McKinnell, and his guidance of Phizer, exemplifies the relationship that is necessary between business and government in order to defeat HIV/AIDS.
Bono acknowledged, “Companies like his [McKinnell’s] are a critical part of the solution by developing and producing these pills and also making them systematically more affordable and accessible to the people who are dying, literally. To get the pills to them is critical too. We need the pharmaceutical companies. We need all the companies represented here tonight.”
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