Bill and Bono’s Excellent Adventure

by Chris Borgen

Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates have been named Times’ People of the Year for their high-profile and effective philanthropic work. (See also this report.) Of particular note was their combined work on DATA, Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa, an organization they founded to focus on the combination of challenges facing Africa, and also the One Campaign, a U.S. campaign to fight AIDS and extreme poverty.

I’m just happy to post this because I’m a big U2 fan (and I was pulling for Bono to get this year’s Nobel) but I really do have a point to make about international law and foreign policy.

One of the prominent themes in international law in recent years has been the rising importance of non-governmental organizations—NGO’s—in the process of international policymaking. The following quote from DATA’s website echoes what many observers say about the work of NGO’s.

We talk to the experts, so we know what is really working — and what’s not. We pull together, summarize and explain cutting-edge research on what works in Africa — and use our access to deliver those insights to top officials who might otherwise not hear the message of hope. And above all, we work to tell our leaders and politicians that people like YOU want to see action.

This combination of economic power and access can make such organizations very effective or, at least, have entrée where others do not. While I am enthusiastic about celebrating the worthy work of Bono and the Gateses, we also need to think about the power of such organizations, especially if they are involved in pressing policy options that we do not agree with. What role should international NGO’s have in the policymaking—and especially the treatymaking—process? What types of disclosures could the be expected to make?

I have no pat answers. So far I see much good from the work of international NGO’s such as DATA but NGO’s are merely tools and they can be used in different ways, depending on who wields them.

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