The New York Times takes on Africa in its op-ed pages today, offering not only a house editorial but an opposing opinion piece that dashes a bit of cold water on the Times’ idealistic approach. The unsigned editorial offers praise for the work already done by the Bush administration on Africa, but insists that more money and effort needs to be forthcoming from the G-8 in order to rescue the continent:
An unusual and mutually reinforcing set of possibilities is converging around this week’s summit meeting of the world’s richest countries in Scotland. If Mr. Bush is truly the compassionate conservative he says he is, he will not let the moment pass with the United States continuing to contribute far less than its share to the international effort to include Africa in the prosperity of the 21st century. …
But so far there has been a discouraging gap between Mr. Bush’s generous declarations and the money Washington has actually made available to Africa. The White House has failed to push the Republican-controlled Congress to fully finance Mr. Bush’s aid programs and failed to spur its own aid appointees to get the money flowing to where it is most urgently needed.
At this point, America’s total worldwide spending on all forms of foreign aid still amounts to only a relatively stingy 0.16 percent of this country’s gross national income, one of the lowest proportions in the developed world. Most European countries represented at this week’s summit meeting are already giving substantially higher percentages of their smaller national incomes. Many have promised to double those percentages between now and 2010. Mr. Bush needs to commit Washington to a substantially faster rate of increase to make America once again a leader in global development.
The Times uses the official government aid figures without noting the substantial private contributions towards African relief raised by NGOs. Other nations tax their citizens at much higher rates and eat up the disposable income which Americans use for purposes such as private donations. That reflects the American preference for self-directed use of funds, while Europeans prefer to use government as the conduit.
As Larry Elder demomstrated ably in Capitalism magazine in January, Americans contributed 35% of all foreign aid in 2004, once private donations get factored into the equation. Private donations to foreign aid equal 2.2% of our GDP — and that doesn’t count the volunteer hours served, nor does it include our infrastructure assistance to relief efforts, such as the use of our military to deliver the aid to the needy. The 0.16% figure is so incorrect as to be deliberately misleading, especially when admitting — as the Times does — that the Bush administration has steadily increased the amount going towards Africa.
However, money isn’t really the problem, nor is more of it the primary solution, as William Easterly writes opposite the editorial:
It’s great that so many are finally noticing the tragedy of Africa. But sadly, historical evidence says that the solutions offered by big plans are not so easy. From 1960 to 2003, we spent $568 billion (in today’s dollars) to end poverty in Africa. Yet these efforts still did not lift Africa from misery and stagnation.
Why don’t big plans work? Because they miss the critical elements of feedback and accountability. If consumers like a product, its maker prospers; if they don’t, the company goes out of business. If voters complain about public services to their local politician, the politician either fixes the problem or gets voted out of office. It doesn’t always work, but it works well enough for rich people to get potato chips and paved roads.
For the poor, Professor Sachs and the United Nations Millennium Project propose everything from nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees to replenish the soil, to rainwater harvesting, to battery-charging stations, for, by my count, 449 interventions. Poor Africans have no market or democratic mechanisms to let planners in New York know which of the 449 interventions they need, whether they are satisfied with the results, or whether the goods ever arrived at all.
After $568 billion has gone down the tubes in Africa — an mind-boggling amount — clearly that solution has been tried and found wanting. Money may be needed, but very obviously the conditions on the ground keep it from the uses that would rescue the continent from itself. Pushing more money into the existing political systems there only serves to keep despots in power and criminals in control of the aid we send. It is Oil-For-Food, only on a much grander scale.
That’s one of the reasons that Sir Bob Geldof’s Live 8 approach seemed different. Yes, they want more money and debt forgiveness, but for the first time, a populist group seemed to understand the need to condition the aid on political reform. The G8 will have to force Africa to reform itself, and unfortunately, there are only two ways to leverage that: money or force. Therefore, we have to prepare to spend some money in order to get the political reform African nations need to bootstrap themselves into self-sufficiency and out of the abject poverty into which their strongmen have consigned them.
Instead of looking at this as aid, perhaps it’s better to look at it as financial incentives — and we need to be tough about releasing the funds for it. No democracy, no money. Let those nations who truly reform benefit, and the pressure on others from the example will work its magic on their more recalcitrant neighbors. We may find that much less money will actually be needed to make that work, in the long run.