With all due respect to the musical prowess of Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee, we think this is the first time we've checked a bona fide rock icon with our Truth-O-Meter.
But U2's Bono is no ordinary rock star. He's also a political activist, using his pop status to advocate for African aid and AIDS relief.
Which is how Bono came to be asked by an Associated Press music writer what he thought about President Barack Obama with regard to funding the fight against AIDS in Africa.
"The Obama administration is just getting going," Bono said. "(He) has promised to double aid over the next years, because even though (President George W.) Bush tripled it ... the United States is still about half as what European countries give as a percentage, and I think he knows that's not right."
We decided to check whether Bono was right that "the United States is still about half as what European countries give as a percentage."
This turned into a tricky fact-check because Bono appears to have interchanged two different funding issues in his comment: global HIV/AIDS relief and foreign aid.
Bono says Obama has promised to "double aid over the next years." Obama has pledged to increase AIDS funding, but not double. He has, though, promised to double foreign aid by 2015. In the same sentence, though, Bono then says President Bush "tripled it." The "it" there is the U.S. commitment to global AIDS relief (not foreign aid). So when Bono said "the United States is still about half as what European countries give as a percentage," is he talking about AIDS relief or foreign aid in general?
The folks at ONE (the organization co-founded by Bono to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa) said Bono was talking here about foreign aid in general — he has used this statistic in the past.
And on that front, Bono is on pretty firm ground. The key qualifier there is "as a percentage." Because the U.S. government distributes more in foreign aid than any other country, by far. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international group of the world's 30 leading industrial countries, reports that in 2008, the United States distributed about $26 billion in net official development assistance. The next closest country was Germany, at nearly $14 billion, and the United Kingdom, with about $11.4 billion.
But considered as a percentage of gross national income (which is essentially the more familiar gross domestic product plus or minus income from other countries), you'll have to go to the bottom of the list to find the United States. We note that none of the countries gives more than 1 percent of GNI. The U.S. gave 0.18 percent. By comparison, here's how some of the European biggies fared: United Kingdom, 0.43 percent; Germany, 0.38 percent; France, 0.39 percent; Spain, 0.43 percent. In other words, it's fair to say the United States is providing about half as much development assistance as European countries, as a percentage of GNI.
There are a lot of other factors to consider when it comes to foreign assistance, though: debt reduction, trade, money from private foundations, to name a few. Suffice to say, you can look at this data in countless ways. And some groups that have attempted to quantify foreign aid on some of these various factors have found the United States to be on par with its European counterparts. But we think it's certainly fair for Bono to cite this statistic from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and had he been clear that he was talking about foreign aid, his statement would have been largely accurate.
But that was not at all clear. In fact, based on the context of his comments, most people would probably conclude that Bono was talking about global AIDS relief , and that the United States only gives about half as much as Europeans "as a percentage." And that is not right.
In fact, in 2008, the United States accounted for more than half (51.3 percent) of all the the global AIDs relief disbursed by governments around the world, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation and UNAIDS. Even when standardized to account for the size of the countries' relative economies, the United States ranked fourth highest, well higher than most European countries. The only ones higher were the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Bono's homeland, Ireland.
Again, some make strong arguments against the use of such rankings because, for example, they don't take into account private donations from foundations. When it comes to AIDS relief from foundations, the United States far outpaces Europe. That's because the United States provides generous tax incentives for such largess. So some argue the U.S. government ought to get credit for at least some of that funding.
By any measure, though, Europe is not spending twice as much, "as a percentage," on AIDS relief than the United States. The Bush administration deserves a great deal of credit for that. In 2003, Bush initiated a $15 billion plan to address global AIDS relief, mostly for countries in Africa where the AIDS epidemic is staggering. And then in 2008, Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — more than tripled the HIV/AIDS relief budget to $48 billion over the next five years. Obama, meanwhile, pledged to provide at least $50 billion by 2013 for the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
"The Bush administration showed real leadership on global HIV/AIDS," said Eric Lief, a senior associate with the Henry L. Stimson Center. "U.S. funding grew exponentially during the last eight years. Since 2001, the U.S. has funded a disproportionate share of global AIDS assistance. But global funding is still far short of anything close to global need. The Obama administration has committed to continuing the upward trend."
As for foreign aid, the United States remains the world’s largest funder in terms of dollars spent, said Lief, who served on the State Department's policy planning staff under President Bill Clinton and was once a senior adviser with the U.N. Joint Program on HIV/AIDS in Geneva.
"In other ways and by other measures, the U.S. falls short in terms of support for the developing world," he said. "Single-index 'rankings' of governments are overused politically. What we’re buying with foreign aid dollars is a much more important question than how much we’re spending, and the U.S. record is mixed."
Now might be a good time to note that Bono appears to be doing wonderful work as a spokesman trying to draw attention to dire poverty and health issues in Africa. And one member of the PolitiFact team gives Bono's performance on the current U2 tour a big thumbs up.
But our review of Bono's performance with this comment is more mixed. Again, if Bono had clearly switched gears and said he was talking about foreign aid when he said the United States only gives about half as much as Europe, as a percentage, he'd be right — at least according to one measure from the respected OECD. But in the context of the interview, Bono appeared to be talking about AIDS relief — in which case he'd be wrong. We checked with the AP reporter who did the interview, and it was her understanding that he was talking about global AIDS relief. At the least, by toggling back and forth between statistics on foreign aid and global HIV/AIDS relief, Bono left room for confusion. And so we rate him Half True.