Let’s celebrate to accelerate

Ten years ago today, at a small press conference in New York, Bono and Bill Gates launched an activist entity called DATA, with start-up funds from Mr Gates, George Soros and Ed Scott.

I was one of the founders, along with Bobby Shriver and Lucy Matthew, and appointed the executive director. Though we started small, our oh so clever acronymic name stood for audacious goals: to campaign on debt, AIDS, trade and aid in partnership with African activists – in return for African governments offering more democracy, accountability and transparency to their citizens. We aspired to be data-based activists with a transatlantic bipartisan strategy, blending pop and policy, so that those with extreme global power would be forced to deal with extreme local poverty – and take the historic opportunity before us to end it.

This little unit evolved into ONE, and in partnership with others helped catalyze the Make Poverty History campaign, the Live 8 concerts and (RED), enabling tens of millions of people to take effective action against extreme poverty. Curiously, hardly anybody knows what all this, and the huge Jubilee Drop the Debt movement where we cut our activist teeth, really achieved.

Some think it achieved nothing or even backfired. So by telling you now the aim is not to blow our own trumpet but to sound a loud alarm, because if people don’t get to know about the wild successes of these struggles, as well as lessons learned from some big failures, they won’t get what’s at stake if progress stalls and programs get cut back.

The statistics of success seem staggering. Maybe that’s part of the reason that people don’t know what’s been achieved; the super-sized statistics drown out more human-size stories. For example, since we and partners ramped up our campaigning for access to life preserving anti-AIDS medication, access increased – from only 50,000 people in Africa receiving the life-saving anti-retrovirals in 2002 to over five million people receiving the drugs in 2010. Such huge inhuman numbers have millions of human faces. Grace and Agnes are two HIV positive Ugandan activists who, when we first met them a decade ago, weren’t able to get the drugs they needed to keep them healthy. Their friends were dying in droves; surely they would themselves depart soon. They had formed a solidarity group, the AIDS Support Organization, to sing to each other and find strength in the face of this daily struggle, and spread a hopeful message of AIDS prevention to those not yet infected. I recall our fury that these brilliant people would die so prematurely, leaving a generation of AIDS orphans. Yet just two weeks ago – ten years to the day after we first met them – we hung out with Grace and Agnes again, as the equatorial sun set on a veranda overlooking Lake Victoria. They are so alive and beaming with pride as they told us how, with a little help from their friends like Presidents Bush and Clinton, they’ve helped get nearly 300,000 more HIV positive Ugandans on to life-preserving, orphan-preventing medications.

Scale this up to 5 million across Africa, and 6.6 million globally, and we see an achievement on an epic scale. It is one of humanity’s greatest recent endeavors. Yet it is a tale rarely told. The story is similar in the spread of bed nets and medications to beat malaria, which have cut death rates in half in 11 African countries. It is similar for education, with 46.5 million more children in school across Africa, in part because of dropped debts. It is similar for vaccinations: 5.5 million deaths have been averted through investments in the GAVI Alliance for simple childhood immunizations. And it is similar for AIDS, TB and malaria, with the Global Fund, also set up ten years ago, saving over 100,000 lives every month from these three killer diseases.

It is hugely humbling to see a campaign you work for catch fire, shift from the margins to the mainstream and know that for each of the millions of lives changed, there are a million others on the other side of the planet across seemingly vast divides, who reached out in partnership. Real people believing in each other and working together to change the world.

But there is no room for smug self-congratulation as the struggles against disease, inequality and illiteracy are far from over, and especially as we learn the lessons of three scandalous oversights: on food security, on trade, and on support for African civil society and their drive for improved transparency and accountability.

Firstly, we were all far too late to campaign for increased investments into food security until the price of food spiraled out of control, hitting the poorest hardest. Still nearly a billion people go hungry every day. Thankfully, the combined leadership of Kofi Annan, Bill Gates and President Obama has put the importance of food security back on the map. But there’s still much, much more to do.

Secondly, we never got going on trade. Despite repeated efforts, the Doha Trade Round is dead, and the often promised Development Round has delivered nothing. Yet steps can – and must – still be taken, for example to support intra-African trade and integration, and provide greater access to all developed markets for African goods, quota and duty free. The better news is on investment as word of Africa’s booming economies has transformed perceptions. Ten years ago the Economist called Africa the “hopeless continent”. In December, the Economist wrote of an “Africa Rising”.

Thirdly, calls from African civil society for greater transparency and accountability have often been paid politically correct lip service, but real support was scarce. Now we’re trying to make up for lost time, in particular by backing activists’ calls for oil, gas and other extractive companies to “publish what they pay” governments for the right to extract natural resources. This will allow citizens to scrutinize official accounts and reduce space for corruption. Indeed, all public finances must be made more transparent and all projects more rigorously monitored for impact, especially by the marginalized – the very people these projects are intended to help. In the last ten years new technologies – led by the mobile phone and social media – make it now much more possible to turbocharge such transparency drives.

It’s an understatement to say that the world has changed utterly this last ten years, in some ways better, some worse. We’ve witnessed serious failures of political and corporate leadership bring on a devastating financial crisis. We’ve also seen that it is leadership from the people that is more often what inspires. From the Arab street to the millions of people delivering lifesaving support to each other on an epic scale we, as citizens and as organized global civil society, can change the course of history. In the face of such progress, and so many remaining challenges and opportunities, the abiding lesson must be that cynicism is unacceptable, apathy is the enemy, to care can be cool. There are grounds for optimism, for hope – for when we work together as one, across political divides, oceans, ethnicities, and beliefs we’ve seen we can achieve awesome results. With so much more to do forgive us if we celebrate – for it’s the best way to accelerate.

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post UK website