Monday Musing: In the Peace Corps’ Shadow

A couple of weeks ago the travel writer and memoirist Paul Theroux published an opinion piece entitled “The Rock Star’s Burden” in the New York Times. It is an article full of bitterness and bile where, in a display of almost unbelievable hubris, Theroux basically expresses a thinly disguised disappointment that the country of Malawi, where he worked as part of the Peace Corps 40 years ago, has not been able to convert his (and others’) generous donation of time and energy into becoming more like a grateful version of Switzerland:

Theroux_2Those 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.

He then takes his misguided judgment of the causes of problems in Malawi and, predictably enough, generalizes it to all of Africa:

Teaching in Africa was one of the best things I ever did. But our example seems to have counted for very little. My Malawian friend’s children are of course working in the United States and Britain. It does not occur to anyone to encourage Africans themselves to volunteer in the same way that foreigners have done for decades. There are plenty of educated and capable young adults in Africa who would make a much greater difference than Peace Corps workers.

The emigration of Africans to the preposterously prosperous countries of the West particularly galls Theroux; after all, didn’t he go there to try and help them? Why can’t they stay and help themselves? Is he really seriously suggesting that if Malawians, with an average income of around 50 cents per day, 900,000 of whom are infected with AIDS, and who have a basic literacy rate of barely 50 percent, were to just stay home and “volunteer in the same way that foreigners have done for decades,” that Malawi’s problems would go away? It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Theroux that while he had the education and the luxury of taking a couple of years off in his youth to indulge his idealistic fantasies (and turn the experience into a lucrative career writing about it–it takes the average Malawian a year to earn the amount of money Theroux probably makes in a day) through a program (the Peace Corps) explicitly designed as a propaganda tool for the American government in the cold war years, most Malawians cannot take a few years off to “volunteer” for the betterment of their country. Of course, those (and there are really very few) who are able to get to the West to make a better life for themselves will do so. And why shouldn’t they? (Mr. Theroux seems not even to have any idea of the difficulties of getting a visa to the West for anyone in the third world.)

Bonoimg782200Bono, through his high-profile campaigns for African debt relief, serves as the main lightning rod for Theroux’s odious and acidic attacks:

There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment. If Christmas, season of sob stories, has turned me into Scrooge, I recognize the Dickensian counterpart of Paul Hewson — who calls himself ”Bono” — as Mrs. Jellyby in ”Bleak House.” Harping incessantly on her adopted village of Borrioboola-Gha ”on the left bank of the River Niger,” Mrs. Jellyby tries to save the Africans by financing them in coffee growing and encouraging schemes ”to turn pianoforte legs and establish an export trade,” all the while badgering people for money.

And also:

Bono, in his role as Mrs. Jellyby in a 10-gallon hat, not only believes that he has the solution to Africa’s ills, he is also shouting so loud that other people seem to trust his answers. He traveled in 2002 to Africa with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, urging debt forgiveness. He recently had lunch at the White House, where he expounded upon the ”more money” platform…

By coincidence, at the time that I read Theroux’s hysterical screed against any money for Africa (keep in mind his saying, “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”), I had just finished reading The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, with a foreword by the much-maligned Bono. Sachs is an extremely well-respected economist, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He is also the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. I recommended Sach’s book in 3QD’s year-end round-up of the best books of 2005, and he does such a good job of not only explaining the “poverty trap” that some African (and other extremely poor) countries find themselves in, but also of anticipating and answering the objections of the likes of Theroux, that I will let him do most of the talking now:

Sachs_3When poverty is very extreme, the poor do not have the ability–by themselves–to get out of the mess. Here is why: Consider the kind of poverty caused by a lack of capital per person. Poor rural villages lack trucks, paved roads, power generators, irrigation channels. Human capital is very low, with hungry, disease-ridden, and illiterate villagers struggling for survival. Natural capital is depleted: the trees have been cut down and the soil nutrients exhausted. In these conditions the need is for more capital–physical, human, natural–but that requires more saving. When people are poor, but not utterly destitute, they may be able to save. When they are utterly destitute, they need their entire income, or more, just to survive. There is no margin of income above survival that can be invested for the future.

This is the main reason why the poorest of the poor are most prone to becoming trapped with low or negative economic growth rates. They are too poor to save for the future and thereby accumulate the capital per person that could pull them out of their current misery…

[The saving rate, for example, of upper-middle-income countries was 25% as opposed to 10% for the least-developed countries, according to a 2004 World Bank study.]

In fact, the standard measures of domestic saving, based on the official national accounts, overstate the saving of the poor because these data do not account for the fact that the poor are depleting their natural capital by cutting down trees, exhausting soils of their nutrients, mining their mineral, energy, and metal deposits, and overfishing… When a tree is cut down and sold for fuelwood, and not replanted, the earnings to the logger are counted as income, but instead should be counted as a conversion of one capital asset (the tree) into a financial asset (money). (TEoP, p.57)

There is much more to this, but you will have to read the book yourself to get all the details, which Sachs does an admirable job of laying out for the non-specialist reader. Much of the book is spent in showing that it is possible, using available data, to estimate fairly accurately the amounts of capital infusion needed by a country to escape the poverty trap. It’s better to just let Sachs take it from there:

Africa needs around $30 billion per year in order to escape from poverty. But if we actually gave that aid, where would it go? Right down the drain if the past is any guide. Sad to say, Africa’s education levels are so low that even programs that work elsewhere would fail in Africa. Africa is corrupt and riddled with authoritarianism. It lacks modern values and the institutions of a free market economy needed to achieve success… And here is the bleakest truth: Suppose that our aid saved Africa’s children. What then? There would be a population explosion, and a lot more hungry adults. We would have solved nothing.

If your head was just nodding yes, please read this chapter with special care. The paragraph above repeats conventional rich-world wisdom about Africa, and to a lesser extent, other poor regions. While common, these assertions are incorrect. Yet they have been repeated publicly for so long, or whispered in private, that they have become accepted as truths by the broad public as well as much of the development community, particularly by people who have never worked in Africa.  I use the case of Africa because prejudices against Africa run so high, but the same attitudes were expressed about other parts of the world before those places achieved economic development and cultural prejudices could not hold up. (TEoP, p. 309)

Hmmm, does the first paragraph above remind you of something you’ve read lately? In the rest of the chapter, Sachs answers these and other objections to aid for Africa in careful detail, with section headings such as:

  • Money down the drain
  • Aid programs would fail in Africa
  • Corruption is the culprit
  • A democracy deficit
  • Lack of modern values
  • The need for economic freedom
  • A shortfall of morals

Just to give a flavor of how Sachs’s refutations of these cliched arguments go, let me first quote our self-appointed Africa expert, Mr. Theroux, one last time:

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.

Now here is Sachs again:

In the past, the overwhelming prejudices against Africa have been grounded in overt racism. Today the ever repeated assertion is that corruption–or “poor governance”–is Africa’s venal sin, the deepest source of its current malaise. Both Africans themselves and outsiders level this charge…

The point is that virtually all poor countries have governance and corruption indicators that are below those of the high-income countries. Governance and higher income go hand in hand not only because good governance raises incomes, but also, and perhaps even more important, because higher income leads to improved governance…

Africa’s governance is poor because Africa is poor. Crucially, however, two other things are also true. At any given level of governance (as measured by standard indicators), African countries tend to grow less rapidly than similarly governed countries in other parts of the world… Something else is afoot; as I have argued at length, the slower growth is best explained by geographical and ecological factors. Second, Africa shows absolutely no tendency to be more or less corrupt than other countries at the same income level. (TEoP, p. 311)

As for Africa’s lack of democracy, Sachs notes that:

Africa’s share of free and partly free countries, 66 percent, actually stands above the average for non-African low-income countries in 2003, 57 percent…

Democratization, alas, does not reliably translate into faster economic growth, at least in the short term. The links from democracy to economic performance are relatively weak, even though democracy is surely a boon for human rights and a barrier against large-scale killing, torture, and other abuses by the state. The point is not that Africa will soar economically now that it is democratizing, but rather that the charge of authoritarian rule as a basic obstacle to good governance in Africa is passe. (TEoP, p. 315)

Well, you get the idea. Buy the book and read it. As for Theroux, he should stick to doing what he does best: writing gossipy accounts of much better writers than himself, like, In Sir Vidia’s Shadow, his book trashing his former mentor, V. S. Naipaul. And more power to Bono!

From Sach’s website: How You Can Help End Poverty.

Have a good week!

My other recent Monday Musings:
Richard Dawkins, Relativism and Truth
Reexamining Religion
Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Regarding Regret
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President