When leaders of the world's wealthiest countries (the so-called Group of Eight, a.k.a. G-8) meet next week in Scotland, Christopher Rooks will be front and center in the do-gooder horde to greet them.
Rooks, the Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the Portland-based aid agency Mercy Corps, will join fellow anti-poverty activists in demanding George Bush, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin and the rest of the gang help the Third World.
On July 2, rock-star activists like U2's Bono and Dave Matthews will hold forth on the issue at five simultaneous "Live 8" concerts-the sequel to 1985's Live-Aid shows.
Before Rooks left for Gleneagles, we sat down with the 29-year-old Lincoln High graduate to talk about debt forgiveness, celeb politics and the One Campaign, the Mercy Corps-backed anti-poverty crusade that has a white wristband as its symbol and Brad Pitt as a pitchman.
WW: What exactly will you be doing in Scotland?
Christopher Rooks: First we're going to Philadelphia to attend the Live 8 concert there, and then going over to Edinburgh on July 6. The One Campaign is the U.S. manifestation of a global movement-we'll probably double the population of Edinburgh while we're there.
Are you getting a backstage pass?
I guess they're still trying to figure that out.
So how does a Portland guy end up jetting around to save the world?
I guess I've always had this interest in working hard for very little money. Seriously, though, after college I did seasonal outdoors education work for a while, but then I wanted a more stable home. When I started at Mercy Corps, I went to D.C. to lobby. The One Campaign grew out of an earlier effort to get people to think about foreign aid as a voting issue. You can't get much done if you don't have constituents who make your issue a priority.
Why should somebody in Portland who's never heard of the G-8 or debt forgiveness care?
There's the very simple moral argument: It's the right thing to do. Also, the 9/11 Commission made it very clear that failing states are not good for global security, and that international development needs to be a big part of our security strategy. Also, we talk about how small the piece we're asking for really is: a 10-percent increase in what we give in foreign aid.
If you ask most Americans how much money we send out in foreign aid, they'd probably say, "Oh, 20 or 25 percent of the federal budget." Well, it's really about 1.3 percent. You ask people how much they'd be willing to give, and they tend to say, "About 5 percent." Once you get those figures out there, it's not a very hard case to make.
Is the recent announcement by the G-8 to forgive the debt of a bunch of poor countries really that big a deal?
It's a huge deal. Bush and Blair and the other leaders should be commended. But the deal needs to be sealed. This is one of three big pieces we're looking for-without increased and better aid and some trade-justice reform, it's not going to be enough.
Explain what forgiving national debt does for the average person in, say, Mali.
It lets the countries start building health, education and transportation infrastructure. It means aid and development can start to come from within. If these countries don't have to spend tons paying back money they owe, they can start to help themselves.
Doesn't it trivialize your cause when your highest-profile people are Bono and Brad Pitt?
People in this culture respond to celebrities. And Brad Pitt said it himself the other day-he couldn't get the cameras off him if he wanted to. So if he's in the media anyway, that's a great platform for us.
I think the debt-forgiveness news did a lot to validate the outreach we've been doing, because if you looked at what the president was saying two weeks before that announcement, it's not at all clear it was going to happen.
Isn't it tough in Washington, where you lobby to get a hearing for these issues in this national political climate?
A lot of members of Congress are interested, but the leadership in the majority hasn't made it a priority. A lot of Republicans are just as interested in this as liberals.
So is this the issue where bleeding-heart liberals and evangelical Christians can find common ground?
Absolutely. A couple of big partners in the campaign are World Vision and Bread for the World, which are both Christian-based groups. For them, it's more of a moral issue. And in a lot of communities around the country, you see Christians coming out to say that poverty-helping the poor-is as central to the Bible as you can get.
For more info, see www.one.org .