Sunday, December 18, 2005

Now that Time Magazine has chosen Bill and Melinda Gates plus Bono as their People of the Year in honor of all their philanthropy, perhaps, the Gates and Bono would benefit from reading Paul Theroux's column criticizing all this charity going to African countries. It really offers a different perspective than the congratulatory notes on how wonderful it is to forgive Africa's debts and to dump more money there without any real reform of the political systems that have squandered the billions already donated.
It seems to have been Africa's fate to become a theater of empty talk and public gestures. But the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help - not to mention celebrities and charity concerts - is a destructive and misleading conceit. Those of us who committed ourselves to being Peace Corps teachers in rural Malawi more than 40 years ago are dismayed by what we see on our return visits and by all the news that has been reported recently from that unlucky, drought-stricken country. But we are more appalled by most of the proposed solutions.

I am not speaking of humanitarian aid, disaster relief, AIDS education or affordable drugs. Nor am I speaking of small-scale, closely watched efforts like the Malawi Children's Village. I am speaking of the "more money" platform: the notion that what Africa needs is more prestige projects, volunteer labor and debt relief. We should know better by now. I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for - and this never happens. Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful, but stupid and harmful; it is also ignoring some obvious points.

If Malawi is worse educated, more plagued by illness and bad services, poorer than it was when I lived and worked there in the early 60's, it is not for lack of outside help or donor money. Malawi has been the beneficiary of many thousands of foreign teachers, doctors and nurses, and large amounts of financial aid, and yet it has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.

In the early and mid-1960's, we believed that Malawi would soon be self-sufficient in schoolteachers. And it would have been, except that rather than sending a limited wave of volunteers to train local instructors, for decades we kept on sending Peace Corps teachers. Malawians, who avoided teaching because the pay and status were low, came to depend on the American volunteers to teach in bush schools, while educated Malawians emigrated. When Malawi's university was established, more foreign teachers were welcomed, few of them replaced by Malawians, for political reasons. Medical educators also arrived from elsewhere. Malawi began graduating nurses, but the nurses were lured away to Britain and Australia and the United States, which meant more foreign nurses were needed in Malawi.

When Malawi's minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? The simplifiers of Africa's problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid. I got a dusty reception lecturing at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation when I pointed out the successes of responsible policies in Botswana, compared with the kleptomania of its neighbors. Donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing.
I would like to see a discussion between Bono and James Shikwati, an Kenyan economist who thinks that foreign aid to Africa does more harm than good because it removes the incentives for building up their own institutions to respond to crises. Unfortunately, such views seem hard-hearted when paired with heart-rending pictures of suffering African children. But, as Thomas Sowell has argued, the history of the enormous aid that foreign nations have given to Africa over the past decades demonstrates that "Promoting dependency and irresponsible borrowing" as happens with the debt forgiveness that Bono pushes for, makes as little sense for African countries as it has for the poor in the United States.