Wednesday, October 11, 2006

'Why are they poor?'

The US public broadcaster NPR has run a series of shows this week about development in Africa. In this piece, journalist Jason Beaubien wonders 'Why Are They Poor?'

Other parts of the series explore the symptoms, such as war's impact on social progress, food shortages and poverty.

The barriers to development in Africa are fairly well-known. Instability, violence, lack of infrastructure, corruption. The usual ills, if you will. Others point to the lasting legacy of colonialism and how the westerners essentially infantalized Africans (when they weren't outright enslavening or killing them) thus seriously hampering their potential for development into modern societies. They add that western meddling in Africa didn't cease with the end of formal colonialism as bad leaders and murderous rebel groups were propped up by outsiders.

But what interests me is differences between development in south and southeast Asia and development in sub-Saharan Africa. Both continents were mostly colonized for long periods of time. They were almost entirely decolonized in the two decades following the end of World War II. But while the continents had similiar income levels in the 1960s, Asia as a whole has developed quite a bit since that time while some countries in Africa have actually regressed. What explains the differences?

I'm not sure I know the answer to that so I'd invite readers to offer their theories. Here are a few of mine.

Both continents suffered under racist colonialism. Asian territory was actually more affected by World War II. Both have had wars, genocide, hunger and bad leaders. So it seems these variables do not explain the differences.

Perhaps scale is a difference.

I once heard an apocraphyal story that went something like this.

An Asian dictator and an African dictator were chum from their school days. The Asian invited his friend to visit his country. They stood in the presidential palace looking out a big window. The Asian leader pointed out the window and said, "You see that big eight-lane highway out there" then he smiled and pointed to his pocket, "15 percent." A few years later, the African leader returned the favor and welcomed his Asian friend. As they were walking around the executive mansion, the African leader pointed out the window to a wild, grassy field, "You see that highway?" and then he pointed to his pocket, "100 percent."


While this tale is admittedly crude, perhaps it offers an insight. One of the things I noticed when I lived in Africa is that while there was no shortage of stuff being built, maintenance of infrastructure was virtually non-existent. Health centers and schools were left to decay. Roads weren't kept up (and a poorly maintained paved road is worse than one that was never paved at all). This comes down to leadership. Building things is more popular than maintaining them because a road or school opening can be done with a fancy ceremony with big shot dignataries. Repaving an existing road or patching a hole in the school roof is far less 'sexy' but just as important.

Perhaps Asian cultures are more conscious about the importance of long-term planning and follow through. I don't know enough to say. But I do know that this doesn't seem to be the strength of many African cultures. This is understandable. If you might killed next week by a bullet or a disease, then what's the point of planning for ten years down the road? First things, first. However, ultimately this perpetuates the cycle of poverty for everyone.

Some argue that dependency theory is to blame for Africa's woes. Africa has received billions in foreign aid but poverty is still as crushing as it was during the independence years. So maybe aid is creating a culture of dependency that prevents African countries from being forced to develop (sort of in the way colonialism retarded development).

I think there's a grain of truth here but I'm not sure I buy this completely. Countries like Mauritania, Eritrea and, for the last decade Somalia, have received minimal foreign aid and their standards of living have hardly skyrocketed. Some contend that aid itself is the problem. I'm more inclined to think that the way aid is structured and delivered is the real problem. Foreign aid has a lot strings but usually not the right ones.

Food aid is a particular problem. Western countries donate surplus food of their own to feed hungry people. As well-intentioned as it may be, it has problems. When free food from abroad is dumped on the local market, it depresses prices for locally produced food thus hurting already poor farmers even further. A better system would be for countries to donate money that would be used to buy food from local producers. This would have several positive effects. First, delivery would be much faster. And local farmers would benefit from the increased demand for their crops. So you'd feed the people who need it while hopefully diminishing the poverty of farmers. As demand for food and agricultural revenue increased, perhaps the farmers could afford to hire some of the previously hungry people to harvest the crops. This would help dent the cycle of poverty rather than perpetuating it with annual bandaids.

As it stands, aid without fundamental reform in the global trade system (particularly western agricultural subsidies) will do nothing to alleviate structural poverty in Africa. The evidence: the last 30 years.

Despite billions of dollars in western aid, only one African country has left the ranks of the world's least developed countries: diamond-dependent Botswana. However, the case of Botswana demonstrates that natural resources need not be a curse if they are properly managed. It's not a coincidence that Botswana is a stable country with a transparent and democratic government that is more or less respectful of human rights.

Some contend that the differences are attributable to Asians being industrious and Africans being lazy. In addition to being racist, anyone who's actually spent any time in an African village would realize how patently absurd such a statement is. The typical African villager works harder than 95 percent of Americans. They have to if they want to eat. There is no welfare state to support them. In much of Africa, if you're lazy, you die. If you work hard and are industrious, you live. It's that simple. The problem isn't that most Africans are lazy; the problem is that the system in place does not reward their hard work.

I'm not really sure what reasons (and I'm sure it's plural) explain the differences in the development paths of Asia and Africa. I'd be happy to hear theories. But clearly many Asian countries have made great strides in development and poverty-reduction. I realize this is bound to be unpopular or at least touchy, but I think one of the reasons is this: both Asia and Africa were deeply ravaged by colonialism. But it seems that without denying the traumatic effects of colonialsm, at some point Asian countries realized they needed to move forward to work together to improve the standards of living for their people. I'm not sure all African countries have made that leap. It's about time they did.

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