On Life, love and Politics

"Random musings about Life, love and Politics. Just my open diary on the events going on in the world as I see it."

What Bono doesn’t say about Africa June 21, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — kikenileda @ 12:32 AM
Celebrities like to portray it as a basket case, but they ignore very real progress.
By
William Easterly, WILLIAM EASTERLY is a professor of economics at New
York University, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the
author of "The White Man's Burden: How the West's Efforts to Aid the
Rest Have
JUST
WHEN IT SEEMED that Western images of Africa could not get any weirder,
the July 2007 special Africa issue of Vanity Fair was published,
complete with a feature article on "Madonna's Malawi." At the same
time, the memoirs of an African child soldier are on sale at your local
Starbucks, and celebrity activist Bob Geldof is touring Africa yet
again, followed by TV cameras, to document that "War, Famine, Plague
& Death are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and these days
they're riding hard through the back roads of Africa."

It's a
dark and scary picture of a helpless, backward continent that's being
offered up to TV watchers and coffee drinkers. But in fact, the real
Africa is quite a bit different. And the problem with all this Western
stereotyping is that it manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of some
current victories, fueling support for patronizing Western policies
designed to rescue the allegedly helpless African people while often
discouraging those policies that might actually help.

Let's begin with those rampaging Four Horsemen.
Do they really explain Africa today? What percentage of the African
population would you say dies in war every year? What share of male
children, age 10 to 17, are child soldiers? How many Africans are
afflicted by famine or died of AIDS last year or are living as
refugees?

In each case, the answer is one-half of 1% of the
population or less. In some cases it's much less; for example, annual
war deaths have averaged 1 out of every 10,800 Africans for the last
four decades. That doesn't lessen the tragedy, of course, of those who
are such victims, and maybe there are things the West can do to help
them. But the typical African is a long way from being a starving,
AIDS-stricken refugee at the mercy of child soldiers. The reality is
that many more Africans need latrines than need Western peacekeepers —
but that doesn't play so well on TV.

Further distortions of
Africa emanate from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's
star-studded Africa Progress Panel (which includes the ubiquitous
Geldof). The panel laments in its 2007 news release that Africa remains
"far short" of its goal of making "substantial inroads into poverty
reduction." But this doesn't quite square with the sub-Saharan Africa
that in 2006 registered its third straight year of good GDP growth —
about 6%, well above historic averages for either today's rich
countries or all developing countries. Growth of living standards in
the last five years is the highest in Africa's history.

The real Africa also has seen cellphone and
Internet use double every year for the last seven years. Foreign
private capital inflows into Africa hit $38 billion in 2006 — more than
foreign aid. Africans are saving a higher percentage of their incomes
than Americans are (so much for the "poverty trap" of being "too poor
to save" endlessly repeated in aid reports). I agree that it's too soon
to conclude that Africa is on a stable growth track, but why not
celebrate what Africans have already achieved?

Instead, the
international development establishment is rigging the game to make
Africa — which is, of course, still very poor — look even worse than it
really is. It announces, for instance, that Africa is the only region
that is failing to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs in
aid-speak) set out by the United Nations. Well, it takes extraordinary
growth to cut extreme poverty rates in half by 2015 (the first goal)
when a near-majority of the population is poor, as is the case in
Africa. (Latin America, by contrast, requires only modest growth to
halve its extreme poverty rate from 10% to 5%.)

This is how
Blair's panel managed to call Africa's recent growth successes a
failure. But the reality is that virtually all other countries that
have escaped extreme poverty did so through the kind of respectable
growth that Africa is enjoying — not the kind of extraordinary growth
that would have been required to meet the arbitrary Millennium
Development Goals.

Africa will also fail to meet the second
goal of universal primary education by 2015. But this goal is also
rigged against Africa, because Africa started with an unusually low
percentage of children enrolled in elementary school. As economist
Michael Clemens points out, most African countries have actually
expanded enrollments far more rapidly over the last five decades than
Western countries did during their development, but Africans still
won't reach the arbitrary aid target of universal enrollment by 2015.
For example, the World Bank condemned Burkina Faso in 2003 as
"seriously off track" to meet the second MDG, yet the country has
expanded elementary education at more than twice the rate of Western
historical experience, and it is even far above the faster educational
expansions of all other developing countries in recent decades.

Why
do aid organizations and their celebrity backers want to make African
successes look like failures? One can only speculate, but it certainly
helps aid agencies get more publicity and more money if problems seem
greater than they are. As for the stars — well, could Africa be saving
celebrity careers more than celebrities are saving Africa?

In
truth, Africans are and will be escaping poverty the same way everybody
else did: through the efforts of resourceful entrepreneurs, democratic
reformers and ordinary citizens at home, not through PR extravaganzas
of ill-informed outsiders.

The real Africa needs increased trade
from the West more than it needs more aid handouts. A respected Ugandan
journalist, Andrew Mwenda, made this point at a recent African
conference despite the fact that the world's most famous celebrity
activist — Bono — was attempting to shout him down. Mwenda was
suffering from too much reality for Bono's taste: "What man or nation
has ever become rich by holding out a begging bowl?" asked Mwenda.

Perhaps
Bono was grouchy because his celebrity-laden "Red" campaign to promote
Western brands to finance begging bowls for Africa has spent $100
million on marketing and generated sales of only $18 million, according
to a recent report. But the fact remains that the West shows a lot more
interest in begging bowls than in, say, letting African cotton growers
compete fairly in Western markets (see the recent collapse of world
trade talks).

Today, as I sip my Rwandan gourmet coffee and
wear my Nigerian shirt here in New York, and as European men eat fresh
Ghanaian pineapple for breakfast and bring Kenyan flowers home to their
wives, I wonder what it will take for Western consumers to learn even
more about the products of self-sufficient, hardworking, dignified
Africans. Perhaps they should spend less time consuming Africa disaster
stereotypes from television and Vanity Fair.

 

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