Friday, July 06, 2007

William Easterly in the LAT on economic development successes in Africa

As William Easterly says, it is much too soon to say whether some favorable economic growth and development trends in parts of sub-Saharan Africa will be permanent. Political instability, for example, can wipe out years of slow improvements in a historical heartbeat. Nonetheless, he says, it would be a mistake not to recognize such improvements as are occurring, in no small part because they indicate the path forward. In the LA Times, here, "What Bono Doesn't Say About Africa," July 6, 2007, opinion page:

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).

As time goes by, Easterly is decisively winning the intellectual battle between his approach to poverty reduction and economic development and that of his main intellectual rival, Jeffrey Sachs. The two share some important things in common, true, but Sachs, over the past few years, has gradually evolved a top-down, 'aid money is the fundamental factor', Soviet-style central planning quotas-and-goals, five year plan approach that has proved so useless in the past. It dovetails with Sachs' position as UN advisor on how to create precisely such command-economy five year plans at the grand UN level. It is profoundly reactionary. And it's a great pity, because Sachs is obviously brilliant and committed - but his ideas, at this point anyway, are wrong and known to be wrong on the basis of what has gone on before in Africa and elsewhere. This is not to exaggerate the ability of markets and trade to address extreme poverty in Africa - there is an enormously important role for public investment and public goods, in such things as counter-malaria, counter-AIDS, education, public health, etc. - but without the engine of trade and markets, Africa will at best remain the world's begging bowl.

Sometimes I wonder why someone so obviously brilliant as Sachs would move in this kind of direction, against strong evidence over decades. Unlike many of his confreres in international organizations, he is not simply a reactionary socialist under an "internationalist" label. It seems to me that a certain amount of it reflects the impatience of an aging - and, let's be honest, massively egotistical - man who wants to see it happen in his lifetime - does not want to accept that the better path will take longer than he himself has got. After all, Easterly's fundamental intellectual point is that development of the kind that Sachs today advocates is essentially a strategic endeavor - one that aims to move massive amounts of money in a short period of time at the macro-level.

Whereas the fundamental problems of poverty reduction for the very poor of the world are at the micro-level. They are today tactical rather than strategic - the resources at the level of global grand strategy have been repeatedly deployed over the last few decades, but they are derailed over and over again by failures at the tactical level, at the end user, last mile (or two or three) level - through corruption, failure to follow through at the village or city level, etc. And those problems have to be addressed individually, at the retail rather than wholesale level. They have to be addressed at the level of political society, which means at a minimum the level of nation-states as well as more local levels. Which means time and more time: this is not a recipe for inaction or complacence, but for long term attention to the task at the microlevel.

Or, to put it quite a different way, Sachs, Bono, all the rest, propose to be the Wilberforce of our time. I applaud this, quite sincerely. I was profoundly moved a couple of weeks ago to see the portrait of Wilberforce in Britain's National Portrait Gallery, as well as a large scale painting of one of the founding meetings of the anti-slavery society in Britain. But what Andrew Mwenda says (interpolating freely my own views into his lines) is that growth in Africa means that its people must eventually be drawn into the global market and become "ordinary" producers and consumers in that market - whereas the most that the Wilberforce moralizing approach will accomplish for economic development in Africa is the begging bowl. Economic growth can, and should, be conceived at one level as a Wilbeforcean moral cause for Africa, but slavery and the slave trade also have certain great dissimilarities with economic growth and poverty reduction, not the least of which is that at some point, the begging bowl must end and "ordinary" market relations obtain - and under some circumstances, attachment to the former can tragically forestall the latter. The two need not be at odds - the model of public investment in vital public goods, for example, while building the connections of trade and markets that produce "ordinary" production and consumption - but they can become so.

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