The Realities of Poverty; the Unrealities of Musicians

Via [Cafe Hayek](http://cafehayek.typepad.com/hayek/2005/12/aid_analysis.html) comes a link to [this article](http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/07/international/07letter.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1133992913-5OCNPuy7E7gXZLqh16AGaQ) in the NY Times.

The article discusses the various barriers to solving poverty in the African country of Malawi.

>A major drought ravaged those small farmers in 1992, and every effort to revive them has failed or, often, backfired. Families have increasingly resorted to casual labor to survive, further reducing the time they have to tend their own tiny fields, forcing them to sell off crucial assets like cattle to buy food.

>In theory, all this is reversible. “Technically, we know what to do,” Suresh Babu, a senior researcher at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, said in an interview. “We know how to prevent this crisis, to put them on a long-term path of development.”

>Mr. Babu knows: from 1989 to 1994, he advised Malawi’s government and the United Nations on food issues. But practically, Mr. Babu says, Malawi’s problems are intractable. International organizations and Malawi leaders disagree over anti-poverty strategies.

>Government corruption siphons money and will. Global charities compete for their own pet projects, rather than cooperating on an integrated plan. Malawi hasn’t the money or political consensus to do what is needed on its own.

>Take irrigation: Amid drought, a gigantic freshwater lake runs virtually the entire length of eastern Malawi, enough water to saturate millions of now-parched acres. Yet only 2 percent of Malawi’s arable land is irrigated. Virtually all of that grows cash crops like tobacco and sugar cane, not the corn that all Malawians eat.

>The government wants to extend water to small farmers, but lacks money. So charities build local irrigation projects, but when they finish and leave, the projects fall apart for lack of maintenance and expertise.

Throughout the article are numerous factoids that show precisely why the biggest problems in Malawi, and so many other African nations, revolve around the lack of infrastructure, stable governments, and the markets necessary to make transactions possible.

While reading the article I couldn’t help but thinking of the big toodoo around “Live 8” a few months ago. Hundreds of manically self-congratulatory musicians had decided that, by playing in eight world cities simultaneously, they could “make poverty history.” I flipped over a few times to check out various worthwhile bands that were performing. However, whenever the issue of poverty would come up I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough. Who do these people think they are? Their stated goal was to influence the G8 leaders of the world, “who have the power to end poverty,” to do something — well, actually just their specific “somethings” — about poverty.

What was continually notable was the accusatory nature with which they addressed the G8 leaders — particularly, of course, President Bush. From the website: “This is without doubt a moment in history where ordinary people can grasp the chance to achieve something truly monumental and demand from the 8 world leaders at G8 an end to poverty. The G8 leaders have it within their power to alter history. They will only have the will to do so if tens of thousands of people show them that enough is enough.”

They firmly believe that Africa is intentionally kept in poverty by the world’s leaders who simply are too lazy and/or malevolent to use the solutions that any right-thinking person would know would work. Once again we see such advocates maligning their opponents with a sinisterness that can only be found in super-villains. It is a perniciousness that does not, in fact, exist in normal (i.e. non-psychopathic) humans. (I call such theories the “mwu-ha-ha” fallacy.) Their proffered solutions — increasing aid, forgiving debt, and “trade justice” — are those continually reference by the modern leftist. These ideas are rooted in the zero-sum theory of wealth; the theory that wealthy nations are only so due to parasitizing other nations into poverty.

However, their rhetoric only serves to trivialize Africa’s problems, problems which unquestionably exist due to a lack capitalism as opposed to an abundance of it. Their economic theories are no better than playground politics; “jeez…come on…share with the other children.” [Dark Star Safari](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0618446877/), Paul Theroux’s wonderful book on his journey across the length of Africa, has a pithy explanation of the situation:

>Africans, less esteemed than ever, seemed to me the most lied-to people on earth — manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn. To be an African leader was to be a thief, but evangelists stole people’s innocence, and self-serving aid agencies gave them false hope, which seemed worse. In reply, Africans dragged their feet or tried to emigrate, they begged, they pleaded, they demanded money and gifts with a rude, weird sense of entitlement.

There exist numerous scathing expos?©s on how the aid industry in Africa actually works. To sum up; it doesn’t. [Lords of Poverty](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0871134691), and [The Road to Hell](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0743227867/) are two of the best on exposing these facts. Corruption rules the day and, if anything actually reaches those in need, it is horribly misallocated and temporary.

Situations such as those in Malawi border on the surreal.

>If only the solution to Malawi’s agony were as simple as punishing craven charities, however. Most people here want to do good, and succeed in the short run. But to many, this is a Salvation Army without a general, marching in different directions while poverty and pestilence pillage the civilians. Seed is available, but without irrigation. Irrigation ditches are dug, but without fertilizer. Water, seed and fertilizer are donated, but the farmer is dying of AIDS. A healthy farmer raises a crop, but government grain policies make him sell his corn for a pittance. A farmer sells his crop, but thousands in this densely populated country face similar hurdles, and stumble.

The tragedy is that the suffering is so unnecessary. The ultimate reason these people are starving and dying is not drought, lack of natural resources, or some other unavoidable feature of the land. These are not the ultimate factors in determining wealth. If they were then Japan and Hong Kong would be always among the poorest nations on Earth and the existence of consistent droughts throughout the US would result in thousands dead. Likewise, if international debt were so damning then the US would also be riddled in poverty. (Yes, I understand why debt uniquely cripples developing nations. However, this is a debate for another time.)

Such blinding poverty is not caused by the environment. Unfortunately — so damn unfortunately — it is caused by man. For those who have researched the Soviet Union, the descriptions of Malawi in the previous paragraph may sound eerily similar. By controlling markets, incentives and choice; by continually practicing kleptocratic governmental ways, the USSR functioned not unlike the office in a Dilbert cartoon – seemingly without reason or a rational and intelligible guiding force. Crops that could have saved hundreds from starvation were left to rot in the field. Brand new tractors rusted in the rain. Tractors that didn’t work and were beyond repair were given new paint jobs — for which the color of the paint was debated for weeks in a committee.

While watching the Live 8 concerts I thought of an ironic twist that could result from their pleas:

> *President Bush addresses the nation: “I have watched the concerts, heard your pleas, listened to a badass Pink Floyd reunion, and I have decided to take action. Over the next four years I will use the American military to systematically invade each problematic African country, remove the government and all persons and organizations that impede markets and democracy, and direct the country on a path to democracy and capitalism.”*

This strategy (strategery?) would certainly work better than those suggested by the Live 8 concerts. Somehow, however, I don’t think they’ll be supportive.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.